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Winter Apocalypse in Atlanta; Congressman Threatens Reporter; Obama Tour; Strangers Hunker Down

Aired January 29, 2014 - 12:30   ET


LIEUTENANT GENERAL RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): We don't have that in Atlanta. We've got a lot of small governments run by the counties, and as a result of that, this has made this problem worse.

Mother Nature had a vote here, but in no way those schools should have even opened yesterday. And the state government should have been closed. It should have never opened.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN CO-ANCHOR: That's where I wanted to get to, the heart of the issue.

During the news conference we were told that the government offices were given notice at 10:00 a.m. yesterday, 10:00 a.m., that they could go home.

And yet a state of emergency was not declared until after 5 p.m. when we already know thousands and thousands of motorists were stuck on a virtual skating rink.

And, obviously, you've seen all of the crisis that's unraveled since then. Now we hear the mayor say we made a mistake not staggering people.

I'm still wondering, who needs to tell the schools to close? Who needs to set the ball in motion for all these independent agencies to take heed from the leadership?

HONORE: The leadership is preventing a crisis. Responding to them, you've seen what you see, call out the National Guard. The good thing is, we don't have the federal government here to blame this time. But that's the normal scenario we go through.

But all the predictions, I mean, the -- all the weather people had talked about this for 24 hours. It's coming, it's coming, it's coming. It should have started with the state government declaring people not to come to work and only having essential people.

And I hope the governor and the mayor learn from this, that they're going to have to act before these events, not make some symbolic gesture after because they need to move now to get those people off the road that's been stuck there for a day.

And I hope they're moving around, making that happen. BANFIELD: That's the reaction to the crisis, but I'm not hearing a lot of contrition nor responsibility for the crisis in the first place. I'm hearing the National Weather Service modeling was off.

But I can tell you, if you watch the national service modeling right beside it should be the CNN meteorologist, Chad Myers, who said, look, it wasn't off to the extent that no one, no one should have closed anything.

Last week, they shut down schools because it was cold. What does it take to shut down schools when there's an ice storm coming?

HONORE: You're absolutely right. We got a failure to lead. And when you lead, you have to make hard decisions. They're not about popularity. They're about performance.

And I hope they'll reflect on that and get a team in there to help them look at the indications -- the emergency operation center should have been open 24 hours before this event even happened. That's what I don't understand. And they've got to fix that.

BANFIELD: We just heard a reporter saying she showed up at Georgia Emergency Management Center at 3:00 yesterday only to be told it's not open, it's not functioning, to which the response was, it was partially functioning, at 3:00 p.m. You've been in this boat. You know the ins and outs of FEMA, emergency management.

Don't we set these things up in advance of crisis as opposed to in the middle or after a crisis?

HONORE: The federal government has given these states millions and billions of dollars to set you up these emergency operation centers. You go to any one on any given day, they're empty.

These are in the 21st century. They have to be fully operational all the time. Go look at the one in New York City. It's operational. Every form of government is in there, and they're there 24 hours a day.

They've got to come into the 21st century and be proactive as opposed to being reactive.


General Honore, great to talk to you.

I'm going to toss this back to you, Brooke and Carol, with this last thought. We heard the mayor swearing up and down the sanding of those streets began at 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning. All I can say is just look behind me at that evidence right there. Look behind you at the evidence behind you.

I'm not exactly sure which streets got the sanding and the salting at 11:00 in the morning, but I can tell you this. At 3:00 or 5:00, whatever time those kids were stuck on buses and had no idea if they were getting home, they weren't on salted and sanded streets. CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Well, it wasn't sanded or salted on Peach Street or Spring Street, because I was there at 3:00 in the afternoon and I didn't notice any of that.

The other interesting thing from that press conference was that the governor seemed to blame truck drivers for the snafus on the highways, and said, oh, if they had chains on their tires, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

But, come on.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Yeah. Speaking of those truck drivers, there are lots of stories coming in of people who have been stuck, you included, many of our colleagues included, but the snow started falling just about 24 hours ago.

We're about to talk to a trucker on our air who's been stuck for 23 hours. He's still stuck. He's just going to talk to us on the phone.

We'll help him. We'll walk him through, this poor guy.

That's coming up on the other side of the break as this special breaking news coverage continues here on CNN.


COSTELLO: Welcome back to NEWSROOM. We've been talking all morning long about the apocalyptic conditions in Atlanta, Georgia, after, what, 2.5 inches fell yesterday afternoon.

BALDWIN: Twenty-four hours ago now.

COSTELLO: Twenty-four hours now.

But the snow stopped long ago, right? So, now we're dealing with this thick sheet of ice and people trapped on the highway.

Some of those people you're looking have been on that highway for 23 hours. Actually, we're going to talk to a man who's been trapped in his big rig for -- it will be 24 hours at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Greg Shrader is a truck driver. You're from Maine. You were just trying to do a three-hour tour here and you've been on the road for 23 1/2 hours. Tell us, are you going crazy?

GREG SHRADER, STRANDED TRUCK DRIVER (via telephone): Well, it's not working out. I was supposed to go down south and enjoy the warm weather for a little bit and it's not working out at all, no. Yeah, it's been a long trip through Atlanta.

BALDWIN: So, Greg, this is Brooke.

And I'm just looking at the map. You were coming from Gainesville, Georgia, so just for people who don't know, this is a little northeast of Atlanta, trying to head directly west to Vance, Alabama.

And, so, at what point did you realize you wouldn't be moving?

SHRADER (via telephone): I'd say I got from Gainesville into Atlanta without much incident, although there was backup out on 285. That led me to stay on 85.

Once you're in Atlanta, you knew you weren't going anywhere. You could tell right off the bat it was going to be a long night.

BALDWIN: And we're looking at your pictures. This is your still picture from somewhere around your truck.

And we were also going between this and live pictures just to remind people, this is still ongoing. There are many, many people, as you can see, several lanes on the right side of your screen, who are still stuck.

To be clear, Greg, you're not stuck in snow or ice. You're just stuck in traffic, yes?

SHRADER (via telephone): I'm just stuck in traffic. No, I'm not stuck in ice. I've slid a couple times. I've seen hundreds of accidents.

I'm not stuck on anything. I'm just - you just -- there's just nowhere to go.

COSTELLO: So, have you ever experienced anything like this? You've been a truck driver for a long time.

SHRADER (via telephone): I can say, this is the worst. This is the worst I've ever seen.

And, you know, two inches of snow, I haven't seen a sander yet, so it's just bad conditions, no road treatments at all.

COSTELLO: A lot of people are saying that, I haven't seen a salt truck or a sander or anything. People are just left at, you know, left on their own.

I wanted to ask you about something Governor Nathan Deal said, the governor of Georgia said. He said that big rigs were in part to blame for this traffic mess because they slip and slide on the roadways. They don't have chains on their tires.

What do you say?

SHRADER (via telephone): Well, I didn't hear him say that. I've managed all 48 states and most of Canada.

This is about treating the roads. It's not about truck drivers being part of the problem. I mean, we can handle the roads if the roads are treated and taken care of. I haven't even seen a guy with a shovel out here.

It sounds like he's blaming a lot of people this morning.

BALDWIN: Yeah. Greg Shrader, stay safe.

As we look at these pictures, it looks like some folks just stuck. I imagine some people, having been stuck hours for hours, making friends, trying to help one another.

We saw the National Guard out and about, handing out MREs. These are meals that we give our troops in Afghanistan, and this is what is being given out to thousands of people still stuck at this hour, nearly 24 hours later on Georgia highways.

COSTELLO: Keep in mind, it is frigidly cold outside. It's like 20 degrees.

So, I admire these people for getting out of their cars and walking around, because I would imagine after being stuck in your car for 12 or 24 hours, you'd want to stretch your legs a bit.

But that's where it gets dangerous, so please, please be careful out there.

BALDWIN: Be careful. Be smart.

We will not go too far from this breaking weather story, the big story of the day.

But we to want move along and talk politics just for a minute.

A representative really showing his emotion in this confrontation and is now apologizing, you will hear what he says next on CNN.


BALDWIN: All right, welcome back. We will get you back to the breaking weather coverage in just a minute.

But first, a U.S. congressman is trying to explain his behavior today after threatening a TV reporter in front of the camera. This is all moments after the president of the United States wrapped up his State of the Union. Watch.


MICHAEL SCOTTO, REPORTER: What? I just wanted to ask you -

REP. MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK: Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again, I'll throw you off this (EXPLETIVE DELETED) balcony.

SCOTTO: Why? I just wanted to ask you -


GRIMM: If you ever do that to me again -

SCOTTO: Why? Why? It's a valid question.

(CROSS TALK) GRIMM: No, no, you're not man enough, you're not man enough. I'll break you in half. Like a boy.


BALDWIN: So, you read that. You saw Michael Grimm, Congressman Grimm, walking back and forth. The other voice you heard was that of reporter Michael Scotto on the receiving end of that threat from the New York Republican congressman out of Staten Island saying, quote, "I will break you in half." Our correspondent, Athena Jones, is on Capitol Hill for us today with this.

And so now Congressman Grimm is apologizing. You saw him today. What did he have to say?


Well, of course, we know things can get contentious in an interview, but it's very rare to see a politician, an elected official, threaten someone on camera. Grimm, we spoke to him in the hallway outside of his office after early votes this morning. He said that he apologized. He called Michael Scotto to apologize. He said the two of them plan to have a lunch sometime next week to put this all behind them. Let's play for you a little bit of what he had to say to us.


REP. MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK: This was an unfortunate incident that shouldn't have happened. And, you know, I'm sure my Italian mother is going to, you know, be yelling at me saying, you weren't raised that way. And she's right. She's absolutely right. The bottom line is, I overreacted and my emotions got the better of me. I lost my cool. And that shouldn't happen.


JONES: Now, just a little bit of background here. Michael Scotto was trying to ask Congressman Grimm about a Justice Department probe into whether he broke campaign finance laws raising money four years ago. Grimm did not want to talk about that. He seemed to believe that they had some sort of agreement not to address things outside of the State of the Union. That's something Michael Scotto says was not agreed to.

I should tell you that Grimm told reporters later on, not on camera, that he hasn't talked to the FBI or the Justice Department about this probe. But I asked him if he thought it was inappropriate. He told Scotto that he didn't seem to want to be asked that question.

He sent a statement to New York One saying that the reporter was out of line. And so I asked him, was it out of line? Was it inappropriate to ask about this investigation? And Grimm said, no, it absolutely wasn't. So, he's trying to come through and apologize here and kind of clear the slate here.


BALDWIN: I wonder if this New York One reporter accepts the apology. I guess we will wait to see. Athena Jones -

JONES: He does accept the apology.

BALDWIN: He does. He does.

JONES: He tweeted that he did.

BALDWIN: OK. Athena, thank you very much, for us on The Hill.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: All I have to say is, I wish I could be a fly on the wall when they have lunch together, right?

BALDWIN: Oh, if they ever do that, ever.

COSTELLO: Exactly.

President Obama just gave a speech in Maryland. Next up, Pittsburgh, to touch on themes from his State of the Union. Jim Acosta is there.

Jim, tell us more.


That's right, last night you heard the president deliver his State of the Union speech. Well, today, he is selling it. He'll be here at this steel plant just outside of Pittsburgh in the next several minutes. He's on the ground in Pennsylvania right now.

He's going to be talking about these new federal retirement savings accounts that he launched last night in his State of the Union speech, by the way, by executive order. Those executive orders that he mentioned last night in that State of the Union speech already has Republicans up on Capitol Hill questioning whether or not the president has the constitutional authority to do that.

But these retirement savings accounts, as we're going to hear the president explain, will allow Americans to withdraw money out of their paychecks, make payroll contributions into these accounts. They'll be backed by the federal government. All of this is going to start as a pilot program.

Earlier today he was also selling another part of his State of the Union speech about the minimum wage at a Costco store in Maryland, just outside the nation's capital. He also talked about that executive order he took to raise the minimum wage for federally contracted workers. But he says it's time for Congress to do the same for the rest of the country. Here's what he had to say.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So Americans overwhelmingly agree, nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. And that is why I firmly believe it's time to give America a raise.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ACOSTA: And the president's campaign style swing through the American heartland does not stop today. He's going to be heading off to Wisconsin tomorrow to talk about job training programs, a reforming of job training programs that he's put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of. And then it's on to Nashville, Tennessee, after that to talk about upgrading schools.

And so, Carol, he is very much in campaign style mode right now, trying to sell that State of the Union speech and that agenda that he has for the coming year, much of it through executive action. Something that Republicans will have a lot to say about up on Capitol Hill today, Carol.

COSTELLO: I'm sure. Jim Acosta reporting live from Pittsburgh today. Thanks so much.

Also this Friday, CNN's Jake Tapper sits down exclusively with President Obama in his first interview after the State of the Union. It airs this Friday morning on "New Day" and again on "The Lead," 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

BALDWIN: All right, back to the wintry weather and back to many, many people stuck on the roads in Atlanta. You know what, not just stuck on the roads. Look at these smiling faces gulping down some water, some much needed refreshment after being stuck and walking from their cars. Coming up, we will talk to a woman who has been sitting in a Walgreens for 19 hours. And, she says, more and more people keep streaming in. We will be right back.


BALDWIN: Well, as the snow disaster continues to unfold across the south, we were talking to Chad Myers, our meteorologist, saying, yes, indeed this will go into day two. We are hearing more and more stories of strangers just making friends, banding together just to make it through what we're experiencing. I mean look at these pictures. Savannah Billington joins me on the phone. Savannah has been stuck since last night at a Walgreens store just north of Atlanta, in Marietta.

And, Savannah, it looks like there are several people with you. Tell me what it looks like right now?

SAVANNAH BILLINGTON (via telephone): Well, right now our numbers have fluctuated between 15 and 25. Right now there's about 10 people left. A lot of people have been able to get out and have found rides. A lot of the roads are starting to clear up enough to be passable. But there's still several people here who are waiting it out just to see how things goes.

BALDWIN: So is -

COSTELLO: So, Savannah, tell us about your journey to the Walgreens. This is Carol Costello. How did you get there?

BILLINGTON: Well, I was out and about at about 2:00 yesterday afternoon. I got stuck in ice (ph) in a subdivision off of Holly Spring Road (ph). Decided that it was just impossible. I had been there for three hours, could not move my car, so decided to just hop out and walk to the nearest open business that had, you know, heat and water and all of those basic necessities. And I ended up at the Walgreens.

And they had everything that we needed. There was a group of seven that started out, that were the first ones to come in. I was in that group. And as soon as we walked in the door, the employees handed us cups of hot coffee. They had chairs waiting for us.

BALDWIN: I see lots of Valentine's candy. A lot of you in the Valentine's candy aisle here at the Walgreens. I mean, how are you doing? Are you just kind of making it through for now? Has the anger set in yet?

BILLINGTON: I'm not necessarily angry. I'm very anxious. I very much want to get home. But, yes, it's more -- it's more -- last night a lot -- was a lot of anxiety just because you don't know exactly how severe it is. You know, in our little section of the Walgreens, it was passable and we were all OK. We were warm and we had water.

COSTELLO: And that is a good thing.

Savannah, who do you hold accountable for this mess?

BILLINGTON: You know, I don't know necessarily who I would hold accountable. And it's all one big pie. You know, yes, the Department of Transportation has a slice of that pie. But also the citizens of Georgia have a slice of that pie. I myself underestimated the severity of the weather. You know, and some of that is personal responsibility. I should have stayed home, you know.

COSTELLO: She is a generous woman, Savannah, isn't she, Brooke?

BALDWIN: You are, Savannah. My goodness. We wish you well and the rest of the folks there stuck at Walgreens. I suppose if you have to be stuck somewhere, a place like that is not horrendous.


BALDWIN: Thank you so much.


BILLINGTON: Thank you.

COSTELLO: It's better than being stuck on a truck on like Interstate 20.

BALDWIN: On hour 23, as Greg who just called in, right? I mean and this - again, I know we have just a minute left, but, again, to underscore, we are now five hours away from sundown and so as people, thousands of cars are still stuck on those interstates, this is, by no means, over.

COSTELLO: I'm just going to pray I can get home because I don't have any gas.

Thank you so much for watching.

BALDWIN: I'm Brooke Baldwin. Carol Costello. I'll be back in an hour. Our continuing extreme weather coverage begins after this break.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, Atlanta emergency.