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CNN NEWSROOM

South Paralyzed By Snow And Ice; Atlanta, Ninth Largest City, Shut Down; Hundreds Of Motorists Stranded; Obama Honors Injured Army Ranger During State Of The Union

Aired January 29, 2014 - 10:00   ET

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


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: COSTELLO: Good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me. Drivers across the south are being warned to stay off the roads for a second day. Hundreds of motorists are waking in their cars, still stranded on icy roads and highways, crippled by just a few inches of snow.

In the city of Atlanta alone, nearly 1,000 car accidents were reported. Some drivers abandoned their cars on the side of the road and were trying to walk home. A pregnant woman stuck in traffic was forced to give birth in her car. Most astounding, local politicians are shaking off the blame saying, we can't control the weather.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): Thousands of drivers stranded on gridlocked highways paralyzing the metro area. Children stuck on their school buses well past midnight.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I was super scared. I was like, if I don't get home to my parents, I'm going to freak out.

COSTELLO: Other students unable to make it home at all, waking up at their classrooms this morning after sleek road conditions forced some schools to cancel bus service.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One of the children had a cell phone so they kept calling me and saying, we stopped again, we slipped again. We are hitting trees. We just ran a red light.

COSTELLO: With more than 900 accidents reported and over 100 injuries, some desperate commuters decided to abandon their cars and seek shelter. Others some who reports spending over 10 hours on the road turned to social media for help, "Nine months pregnant, haven't eaten since 10:00 a.m. yesterday. My car is out of gas and I'm starting to get cold, dehydrated and hungry. Please help."

Anxious residents seek help for their loved ones, "I have a friend whose truck has been hit by six cars. She has two kids in the car and trying to get two more at daycare. The 911 is busy, any suggestions?" The city in a state of emergency leaving many asking why wasn't the city more prepared? Facing mounting criticism, Governor Nathan Deal blamed a faulty weather forecast in a presser late last night.

GOVERNOR NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: I wish it was something we could just wave a magic wand, but that's not possible. We have to deal with the reality and I think all these folks that are here are doing their very best.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Indra Petersons might have a bone to pick with Governor Deal because she said the weather forecast was spot on. Another one of our meteorologist, Jennifer Gray, tried to make it home yesterday afternoon. Perhaps that was a mistake. She was forced to abandon her car. She has a terrible story. She joins us now to tell us more. Hi, Jennifer. Are you OK?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST (via telephone): Hi. Yes, I'm OK. That was the craziest thing I have ever been through in my life. Insane I just moved to Atlanta a couple of months ago. I did live shots outside of CNN yesterday until about 4:45. I got in my car to drive home. Nobody was driving in the HOV lanes, not one single car. So I hopped in the HOV lanes because I felt like we need to utilize all the lanes we could. Got about halfway home making pretty good time and it stopped, nothing once you got on 75 where 75 and 85 split.

I was there for hours and hours and hours. The entire southbound side of 75 was completely shut down. You never saw a sand truck or a salt truck or a plow or anything utilized at that time when it was shut down for some reason. People were just getting really impatient. You are starving. You have to go to the bathroom. Eventually, around 11:00 last night, I just started getting nervous. I was about four miles from home. I was thinking, I'm going to park my car on the side of the road and start walking.

COSTELLO: My gosh.

GRAY: So I pulled my car over to the side. I started walking. Hundreds and hundreds of cars that I passed had people sleeping in them, people had abandoned their cars. People were walking along the road. I had my cold weather gear on. I was lucky. I was doing live shots for CNN. There were women in heels walking in the ice trying to find answers. I walked about a mile to a gas station and got some food and went to the bathroom.

My boyfriend was a couple miles away. He met me. We walked back to my car together and then finally got off at the next exit and tried to get home, back roads, couldn't. We had to dish the car about two miles away from home and got home about 5:30 this morning. We walked.

COSTELLO: My gosh, you left work at 4:45 yesterday afternoon and actually made it home at 5:30 this morning. That's insane. We just moved you here from Florida. So this must be absolute hell for you.

GRAY: It was crazy. We dropped the car two miles away from home. We walked the last two miles. That's the only way we are home now. This completely reminds me of the scenes that I saw in 2005 during Hurricane Rita when Houston was trying to evacuate. Everyone tried to leave the city at once. There were people stranded on the roads. Everyone was running out of gas. They didn't know what to do. There were no answers. I was listening to some of the local radio stations just to find answers and no one was calling in to say, this is what's happening. This is what's going on. You are getting so stressed out, because you feel like there is no end. I am completely thankful, but shocked that no one died in all of that. I kept saying in my head, somebody is going to die out here. Somebody is going to die out here because this is crazy. Awful.

COSTELLO: By the grace of God. It was absolute luck. Jennifer Gray, I am glad. I am so glad that you are home right now and safe and sound.

GRAY: Me too.

COSTELLO: Thanks for sharing your story.

GRAY: Me too.

COSTELLO: OK, let's head out to College Park. That's very near the Atlanta Airport. Victor Blackwell is standing by with some information. Good morning, Victor. What do you have to tell us?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, good morning. I'm just in the last couple of moments had a conversation with the spokesperson for Atlanta Public Schools and I've asked the question. I've asked several times this morning since I got the first update at 5:00 a.m. The question is what is the plan to get the hundreds of students at nine sites across the area back to their homes, reunited with their parents?

The answer was, I have not been given an answer from the board. So that spokesperson, still no update at this hour on how to get the kids back home. You go to their Facebook page. You look at the twitter handles and people are using words like failure of leadership, frustrating, enraging, disappointing. They have been waiting for the children to come home.

The ones who were still at school are the fortunate ones when you consider how many kids stayed on buses. I just listened to Jennifer Gray talk about her experience. My team and I, we were coming from South Georgia, coming back to Atlanta. We sat in traffic and we were going about a mile an hour.

At one point, we abandoned that idea of making it into the city. We lucked up on getting hotels here in College Park. That's why we are here. We were listening to the radio shows, Carol. There was one elderly woman that called in. She asked the host about the legality of relieving herself on the side of the highway. I know that's an indelicate topic, but consider this elderly woman has been sitting in traffic for six hours at that point and she had to make a decision. Thousands of people had to make that decision.

Some people ended up at the Home Depot stretched out on patio furniture, on cushions, sitting in grocery stores overnight. There are still students who were still stranded on a bus sitting at a grocery store off of Interstate 285. A lot of people, I know, listened to that interview with Mayor Reed and heard from the assistant superintendent from Atlanta Public Schools and officials in other districts. Still, very unsatisfying if you look at the social media response to what they are still living through, this nightmare, this morning -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Well, Victor, I have got to say. You mentioned that interview I had with Mayor Kasim Reed. He says it is not his fault. He did what he could. I am sure that will enrage many people in the Atlanta area.

BLACKWELL: Yes, you know, there are a lot of people who if you look online are not buying that. There are people, also, I should preface this by saying some of the tweets, some of the comments about schools, they are thanking the bus drivers and they are thanking the teachers who just did what they were ordered to do, what their job required. They are saying that all these messages of how the partners came together to make this work, it is not the responsibility of the manager of Home Depot to make sure the kids get somewhere.

It is not the responsibility of the Kroger employees to feed children. They were dropped off there by ambulances that had to pull them off of school buses that were flooded streets in the middle of the afternoon. This is the outcry from people who are still waiting for their children to come home.

COSTELLO: All right, Victor, many thanks to you. Great information there. I want to get Mari Ramos, one of our CNN meteorologists on the phone because she too has a nightmare to tell you about. Tell us.

MARI RAMOS, CNN I-REPORTER (via telephone): When I left work at CNN around noon, I knew that the roads were crowded and I knew that it had started to snow, but I honestly thought I was going to make it home.

COSTELLO: Why did you think that?

RAMOS: Because it was only supposed to be 0-2 inches of snow. That's not that much. I believed that the roads would be taken care of. Most of my commute, almost 30 miles, is on the highway. I thought I would make it. I can tell you now, I didn't. I'm still not home.

COSTELLO: It's just crazy. We're looking at live pictures. I think that's I-75 there, aerial shots from WXIA. People are still trapped in their cars and waiting in long lines of traffic. So how long did it take you to get home? Did you too have to abandon your car?

RAMOS: I left CNN Center around noon. It was still relatively early. The traffic was really bad. It took me about five hours to travel 20 miles. I didn't -- I wasn't prepared. I didn't have -- I had my work clothes on, my work shoes, it was not as if I could get out of my car at any moment, because it was so cold. I didn't have a blanket. Carol, the irony is that I do this for a living and I tell people, if you are going to go out in the winter weather, make sure your car is prepared, you have a blanket, food, water. If you get stuck, you are on your own. They may not be able to come get you.

Here I was in my car with none of those things and my windshield being caked with ice. I'm from Miami. I have never driven in this kind of weather. My car ended up sliding off the interstate into the ice. I wasn't able to move for about an hour until emergency personnel got there, but they were trying to get through to an accident that was farther down the road. They couldn't help me. They had a bigger emergency to go to. I was really scared at that moment. I think that was the scariest moment.

Eventually, they kind of guided me. They had to move me out of the way in order that their emergency vehicles could get by. Then, I was able to get off the road. I had a couple of friends, Alicia and my husband, Michael, were both trying to find hotels for me. I kept saying, OK, I am getting to Wendy Hill. Can you find a hotel?

Can you find a hotel in mayor parkway? Everything was booked. Finally, we were able to find one hotel. I drove as close as I could and then I walked the last two blocks.

COSTELLO: You poor thing. You left at noon yesterday that was quite -- you know you talk about the hotel rooms. The poultry convention is in town. That's why all the hotel rooms are filled up. I bet they are having a great time. Mari Ramos, thank you so much for joining me and sharing your story. I appreciate it.

I want to take you to the Georgia Department of Transportation that's where Nick Valencia is right now. What are they saying about road conditions, Nick?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Carol. We are actually outside of the CNN Center. I have not spoken to the Georgia Department of Transportation, but I have spoken to many people that have similar stories. Mari Ramos, we heard just the nightmare that she went through. Our other colleague, Jennifer Gray and people I've spoken to they say it is not a lack of preparation. It was that there was no preparation at all.

I heard your interview with Mayor Kasim Reed. He said it was not as bad as it was in 2011. I was here for that ice storm in 2011. From my personal experience, Carol, this was much worse. You have motorists abandoning their cars on sides of roads. In the middle of some highways, a woman gave birth in her car. Children stuck in elementary schools. People traveling more than 12 hours just to go a few miles.

You could imagine just the situations and the stories that are coming from emergency type situations of people not being able to go to the bathroom, wanting to get home to their children, not being able to let their animals out or take care of their loved ones back at home. I got caught up in the start of it at about 1:00 p.m. yesterday. This was really a lack of coordination among businesses and schools.

Everybody got let out at the same time. You had 1 million people on the roads in Atlanta all trying to get home and it was really a race against the clock, everybody trying to beat each other to get home. That caused a huge mess on the freeway, traffic jams. You are looking at live pictures here hovering from our local affiliate. The interstates are still a mess. It is just as alarming here for the residents having to deal with this as it looks and as it sounds.

People spend the night at a CVS. We are hearing stories about culinary students cooking for about 700 people. The good thing about stories like this, the good thing about situations like this, is people come together in extraordinary circumstances and we've seen a lot of people go above and beyond to help out their fellow neighbour, people, strangers, helping out strangers. That's really the good side of this. Everybody that you speak to here, Carol, everyone here has a story, you and I included.

COSTELLO: Yes. Nick Valencia, many thanks to you. I'll take a break. We'll be right back in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: Let's talk a little politics before we get back to the weather that's paralyzing the southeast. The state of the union was pretty much as you'd expect last night except for one moment. It happened late in the night, but it became a powerful moment of true bipartisanship, President Obama's homage to a war hero and his emotional story of survival at the end of the state of the union address.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I first met Cory Remsburg, a proud army ranger at Omaha beach on the 65th anniversary of "D-Day." Along with some of his fellow rangers, he walked me through the program and ceremony. He was a strong, impressive young man, an easy manner, sharp as a tack. We joked around and took pictures. I told him to stay in touch.

A few months later on his 10th deployment, Cory was nearly killed by massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal face down under water, shrapnel in his brain. For months, he lay in a coma. The next time I met him, in the hospital, he couldn't speak. He could barely move.

Over the years, he has endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, hours of gruelling rehab every day. Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye, still struggles on his left side but slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad, Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown strong stronger.

Day by day he has learned to speak again and stand again, and walk again. He is working toward the day he can serve his country again. My recovery has not been easy, he says. Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy. Cory is here tonight. Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up and he does not quit.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: A lot of tears shed. Joining me to talk a bit about this, CNN's chief Washington correspondent and host of "THE LEAD," Jake Tapper. Good morning, Jake. JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol.

COSTELLO: Were you in the room when that happened?

TAPPER: I was not. I was right outside, but we are watching. It was obviously the most emotional moment of the night. In fact, the camera cut away just then before what I thought was perhaps the most meaningful part, which is when Sergeant First Class Remsburg saluted the president and he saluted him back. That's especially meaningful because in their third meeting, it was very dramatic by all accounts when Sergeant Remsburg, who had been in a coma for three months, when he stood and saluted his commander in chief.

There was a time when doctors didn't think he was going to be able to do that. It was a remarkable moment and very meaningful to Sergeant First Class Remsburg's family and the president as well, I'm told.

COSTELLO: Of course, the president used him as a symbolism of what America is made of, of what we can achieve if we try hard enough. Will that resonate?

TAPPER: I wish I could say that it will. I mean, obviously, that was a wonderful moment and bipartisan support for that particular sergeant first class. I'm not sure that as a metaphor that necessarily means anything in terms of the country and the Congress rallying behind what President Obama wants to do. This is the state of the union address. I think it was not an insignificant one in terms of a course that the president is now willing to take. I don't necessarily think he changed any minds in that room per se.

COSTELLO: I know you are going to sit down and you are going to talk to President Obama later today and I'm sure you have plenty of questions you are going to ask him. Tell us about it.

TAPPER: You know, it's always complicated when you do an interview with the president. We will be interviewing him tomorrow and it will air Friday morning on "NEW DAY" throughout the day on CNN and then the full interview will air Friday afternoon on my show "THE LEAD" at 4:00 Eastern.

When you interview somebody like President Obama, you know, you start off with a list of maybe 100 questions. You really have to winnow it down to no more than a dozen because you have to think about, well, what is he going to answer? How is he going to answer? What has been asked before, what has not been asked before, what do the American people care about, what do they not care about?

There were also in addition to 15 minutes of an interview, there is going to be about 5 minutes of walk and talk. Usually, as you know, Carol, that's a moment where you can ask some questions that aren't necessarily hard-hitting questions, maybe more emotional ones, maybe about Sergeant First Class Remsburg or maybe about something else.

But I'm certainly not going to announce to the White House, assuming they are watching right now, what questions I am going to ask. They will be substantive and about jobs and the economy, the presidency, politics, foreign policy, national security. Let's keep it there on those broad categories.

COSTELLO: Spontaneity is always the best. Jake Tapper, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

TAPPER: Thanks.

COSTELLO: Well, sadly, we have heard of our first fatality due to that big storm in the southeast. After a break, Victor Blackwell has all the details for you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: Breaking news for you this morning. Much of the south is frozen in place. Driving all but impossible still in the Atlanta area and we are getting new details of just how bad it is. Victor Blackwell joins us with some numbers. Tell us, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Carol, good morning. The first confirmed fatality in the state of Georgia is related to the weather. I just received an update from Georgia State Patrol in which I am going to read the message as it came from them.

Troopers have been dispatched to 1,254 crash calls with 130 injuries and one weather-related fatality since 10:00 a.m. Tuesday. Of course, that's when the snow started. The slush started and all froze over. I am holding my phone here because I, of course, asked for details about the circumstances surrounding that fatality. I am hoping that I get a response.

But understand that even with the 1,254 crash calls, those were just calls that state troopers responded to. That does not include the crashes that local city police, the municipal resources responded to. We have seen CNN I-reporters submit videos of neighbors who are pushing trucks out of the way to allow school buses to get down the road. Crashes that went unreported, people ended up in ditches and walked off to make a phone call or get in a store. The latest number, one fatality -- go ahead.

COSTELLO: I'm sorry, Victor. One fatality reported. I want to go to Mayor Kasim Reed's, the Atlanta mayor's press conference right now. Let's listen.

MAYOR KASIM REED, ATLANTA: We have not had any major injuries at this time. Of the 791 accidents that have occurred in our city, 763 have been resolved. We have open cases on 28 of them. We also conducted police escorts for sand spreaders. We've been monitoring recreation centers. We have provided warming stations and we have gotten all children who attend school in the APS system to a safe place so none of the students in the Atlanta Public School system are on buses.