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Atlanta Gridlock Almost 24 Hours Old And Counting; Commuters Stranded On Highways; Volunteers Help Stranded Motorists; Obama Lays Out Agenda

Aired January 29, 2014 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, Atlanta emergency. Kids forced to spend the night in school or in school buses. Hundreds of accidents. Drivers stranded for more than 20 hours on ice-covered roads.

Also, right now, President Obama is on the road trying to sell a State of the Union message. How much did last night's speech help the president?

And right now, a New York Congressman apologizes for threatening to throw a reporter over a balcony and the whole thing caught on camera.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We begin with the chaotic scene playing out right now on roads all across the south. People remain trapped in their cars more than 24 hours after a winter storm covered the region in snow and ice. The situation in Atlanta is especially bad. Schools and businesses closed early, right at the storm hit, creating absolute gridlock all around the city. Half hour commutes took eight hours or longer. And so, many others never made it home at all, including children stranded on buses overnight with no food or bathrooms. More than 4,000 other students had to spend the night at their schools.

Nick Valencia is joining us from Atlanta right now. This is a very dangerous, frightening situation, Nick. Some people stuck in their cars. Some ran out of gas. So, what are officials doing right now to end this nightmare and get these people home safely?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's just as alarming as it looks and sounds. And people are further enraged by the lack of accountability that city and state officials -- they're not -- they're not taking responsibility whole-heartedly for this mess and this disaster. It's just as bad as it looks out there. We've seen Interstate 75 just in gridlock. People stranded in their cars for overnight. People still stranded out there after being in -- on the road since 2:00 p.m. yesterday.

And this report that we just confirmed a little while ago is getting quite the reaction on social media, Wolf. The Mayor, Kasim Reed, of Atlanta was at a Georgia "TREND Magazine" award luncheon alongside Governor Nathan Deal while the worst of the storm was hitting and while people hit the roads. Part of the problem, Wolf, a big part of the problem, was lack of coordination and the lack of preparation here among businesses, private sector, government officials as well all hitting the road at the exact same time.

The mayor was saying on a local radio station yesterday, we had about a million people on the roads and people were stuck. On a good day, it would take hours for anyone to get from point A to point B. You add the weather and icy conditions, it just created a disaster. Some of the worst stories we're hearing, a woman had to give birth in her car on the side of the interstate with the help of a police officer. We're seeing other reports on social media of one man particularly, he's still stuck in his car, he's saying he needs food and water. He's a diabetic and hasn't -- doesn't have access to his diabetes medication. Very dramatic scenes and pictures.

Everyone here has a story, Wolf. Myself included. I was stuck on the roads, six miles, took me four hours to travel. We're hearing other stories from our colleagues. Jennifer Gray stuck on the interstate for more than 12 hours. Our other meteorologist, Mari Ramos, also stuck. And part of the issue here, local officials say that the weather forecast was wrong but that's simply inaccurate. Our own CNN meteorologists, Indra Petersons and Chad Myers, had been predicting this kind of weather for more than 24 hours. And as you know, Wolf, having spent time in Atlanta, the resources here for a snow like this, a snow event like this, they're just simply not there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It looks like some serious mis-coordination. All right, Nick, stand by. Our colleague, Michael Holmes, who never made it home last night, spent the night at the CNN center in Atlanta. He's out on the roads right now. There's a little bit of sunshine, I take it, but there's also still gridlock, Michael. I know our viewers have seen you covering wars. You recently got back from Baghdad in Iraq. So, what's it like in Atlanta right now?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I come from Baghdad to this nightmare, Wolf, you're right. Yes, we're out here on I-20 which is a major Atlanta freeway. It runs east-west just south of the city. And just have a look there. It's been gridlock here since we got here. They seem to be funneling the trucks up to the left. It's mainly trucks, I have to say. Just look at the ice on the back of that truck, give you a sense of what's going on here.

But, Wolf, I'm going to bring you over here and introduce you to someone we've just bumped into on the side of the road, Walter Wilkins. Good to see you, Walter.

WALTER WILKINS: How are you doing?

HOLMES: Just explain how long you have been out here.

WILKINS: Well, I've been out here since about 4:30 yesterday evening and the traffic is at a standstill. I thought the roads would be better prepared but they weren't.

HOLMES: Yes. What have you been doing for all those hours?

WILKINS: Basically, sitting in traffic waiting for it to move. Watching T.V. trying to get news updates, listening to the CB, trying to find out any information regarding all this traffic.

HOLMES: Well, at least you've got a cab there so you've got a bed and you've got some supplies?

WILKINS: Yes, I always travel to survive. I've got enough food and water in my truck for at least five days.

HOLMES: Yes. Now, are you one of those truckies who you're losing money sitting on the side of the road?

WILKINS: Yes. If I can't deliver my load, I don't get paid.

HOLMES: Yes. So, every mile that you're not doing is money you're losing.

WILKINS: Yes, sir.

HOLMES: Who do you blame, Walter?

WILKINS: I don't really blame anybody. You can't blame the weather because it's so unpredictable. And so, if they -- I think if the DOT was better prepared, it would move a lot smoother.

HOLMES: Yes, yes. So, what's your plan? You've got how far to go?

WILKINS: I've got about 81 miles to go to east Ellijay, and I don't think it's really safe so I'm going to (INAUDIBLE) and wait it out as long as I can.

HOLMES: So, you could be here many more hours.

WILKINS: Yes, I can. Like I said, I'm not concerned about going out there because it's really not safe for me.

HOLMES: Yes, exactly. Well, Walter, I appreciate you talking to us.

Wolf, that's just one truck driver. And I'm going to be honest with you, Wolf. We came out here from CNN to try to find some people stuck on the road. And I'm going to be honest with you, we've been out here for five minutes. It was that quick. We literally pulled onto the freeway, stopped, met Walter, bang. Here is somebody who has been out here since 4:30 yesterday afternoon. It's not hard to find. There's trucks parked on the side of the road.

If we can sneak out here. They're parked on the side of the road down there. They've given up like Walter has. So, you can see here, this goes on for miles and miles. A little bit of movement but not much. Obviously, a dreadful situation. And I was listening earlier when you were talking there. Yes, we didn't get home last night either and probably not tonight. I mean, in a city this size, Wolf, it's -- and as you referenced before, this is Baghdad traffic, I tell you.

BLITZER: Yes, it looks awful. It's really amazing when you think about it. All right, Michael, we'll check back with you as well. Good luck. Well, let's get an update now on what officials in Atlanta are doing right now to try to clear the roads and get everyone home safely. Ken Davis is a spokesman for Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He's joining us on the phone. Thanks so much, Ken. What's the status of Atlanta's highways right now? How many trucks, cars, vehicles, people are stuck?

KEN DAVIS, SPOKESMAN, GEORGIA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (via telephone): Far too many, Wolf. We don't have an exact figure but suffice it to say that the roads in many places, particularly interstates, are still jammed. We have trouble spots even on some of the primary non-interstates. However, the progress is being made. We are urging people to stay off the roads unless it's absolutely, positively unavoidable.

And if that is the case, to certainly stay off the interstate. The problem is that this is an ice situation. It's not snow. It's ice. And the temperature is still below freezing. So, there's not been any melting. And the considerable salting and de-icing equipment that's, you know, operated by the local and state agencies basically is not able to get out of -- get out because of the impasse on the interstates.

But we're trying as best we can to get the roads clear or at least a passageway through there so de-icing equipment can get out. And hopefully things will get rolling again. And also, getting the students home. By getting the roads clear, that will help facilitate getting the school students who have been sheltered overnight in some schools around metro Atlanta home safely.

BLITZER: I know it's -- you guys are trying to fix this problem and you got a lot of emergencies you're dealing with, especially with students, the young kids, the elderly who may be stuck. How do you get those emergency vehicles, though, into those areas to try to extricate, to get those folks out and bring them into safety?

DAVIS: Well, the National Guard is out and about in their Humvees. And many of your public safety and law enforcement, public works departments have, you know, specialty, high-profile and, or four-wheel drive vehicles and they're, you know, taking it very slowly and being quite careful as they navigate some of the roadways. But, again, progress is being made. Some of the spots that have been blocked overnight are beginning to break free. And there is some movement, but all of them have not been cleared yet. But, you know, local, state and even private concerns are working frantically to get things cleared up.

BLITZER: What about FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security? Are you getting federal assistance?

DAVIS: No, not typically for ice and snow events. Not at this point. We're still very much in the emergency phase, trying to deal with getting these people to safety. That's more of an administrative reimbursement thing, even if it does come about, which it might not. BLITZER: Ken Davis is the public affairs director for Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Good luck, Ken. Good luck to you. Good luck to all the folks there. You got a huge, huge problem on your hands. Thank you.

Some of the people watching the thousands of stranded motorists around Atlanta decided they would find a way to help earlier today. Reporter, Richard Elliot, of WSB found an icy stretch of interstate where traffic was moving and he came across two men handing out food. Watch this.


RICHARD ELLIOT, REPORTER, WSB TV: Just about five minutes ago, we actually saw a GDOT salt and gravel spreader truck come by and spread gravel on the center lanes. And it was like magic. All of a sudden, all of these cars that were kind of stuck on this very slippery incline a little bit west of Shanle (ph) Dunwoody, they were able to get up the hill. Traffic is moving a little bit. That big rig there in the middle lane, it's still stuck on ice. He's been spinning his wheels, trying to -- trying to get out. Now, you see all the abandoned cars behind us. A lot of people were stuck in these cars overnight. I want to introduce a couple of folks. They actually live nearby. Tell me your name.

SONNY ORE (ph) : My name is Sonny. Sonny Ore.

ELLIOT: And your name?

DANIEL PULLMAN: Daniel Pullman.

ELLIOT: Now, they live very close by. They got a cooler with the sled and they're bringing food for people who are stranded, who are abandoned on the side of the road. Why did you all decide to do that this morning?

ORE: You know, it's just you've got to do what can you to help. My sister got trapped in this over in Marietta. And I thought, I can't do anything for her but I live close enough to 285 and surely we can help somebody. And I'm coming out with this water and I run into this guy who I don't know who's got food and we're, like, hey, we're a great team. So, we're trying to hand out food and water.

ELLIOT: So, you had the water.

PULLMAN: And I had the food. We were just trying to help out. You know, my wife was stuck in five hours and we thought that was bad. And we woke up this morning and here it is people are 24 hours. So, I thought, hey, we've got some peanut butter sandwiches and some granola bars. Let's see what we can do to help these folks out.


BLITZER: Richard Elliott reporting for us from our affiliate, WSB. Food and water have become a big concern. Many drivers now going on 24 hours since they began their trips. We'll have more on the story coming up later.

Also coming up, President Obama, he's on the road today looking to capitalize on his State of the Union message. But how is that message playing back in Washington? Crossfire's S.E. Cupp and Van Jones, they are both here and they will weigh in.


BLITZER: I want to show you some live pictures right now. These pictures coming in from Bayonne, New Jersey. A Royal Caribbean Cruise ship is returning to port. The Explorer of the Seas cut short its voyage because of a stomach bug. Almost 700 passengers and crew members came down with it. That's the biggest cruise ship outbreak in some 20 years. It's believed to be the norovirus, that's the culprit, but that's something investigators are still trying to figure out. Workers will sanitize the ship to try to kill off any traces of the virus. The company said all passengers will get a 50 percent refund and a credit for a future cruise. But there you see the ship getting closer to Bayonne, New Jersey.

Now to the State of the Union and president's post-speech push. He's in Pennsylvania this hour talking about a new investment initiative. Earlier, the president stopped off in Maryland to emphasize his push for a higher minimum wage.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Congress does have to do its part to catch up to the rest of the country on this. And there's a reason why a wide majority of American support increasing the minimum wage. Look, most Americans who are working make more than the minimum wage. So it's interesting that the overwhelming number of Americans support raising the minimum wage. It's not that it's going to necessarily affect them personally right now. It's that they know, they understand the value behind the minimum wage. If you work hard, you should be able to pay your rent, buy your groceries, look after your kids.


BLITZER: The president says he will sign an executive order soon raising the minimum wage for future federal contractors. He indicated that there will likely be more executive orders and challenged Congress to step up as well.


OBAMA: Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.


BLITZER: The president hit several high notes in his State of the Union Address last night. Other than minimum wage, he also hit unemployment benefits, immigration reform and Iran. There was also this nugget about equal pay, mothers and fathers.


OBAMA: She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or a sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does, too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a "Mad Men" episode.


BLITZER: I'm joined now by the "Crossfire" hosts, S.E.Cupp and Van Jones.

Nice reference to "Mad Men" by the president. What's your take on what he says? Why shouldn't women be able to make the same amount of money for the same work that men make? The president pointed out that women, on average, get 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes, even though they're half of the workforce.

S.E. CUPP, HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": Yes, I mean it's actually -- it sounds great and there were a lot of warm fuzzes in the president's speech. I mean who doesn't want a woman to be able to pay their rent, care for a sick child, care for a sick parent. I mean, everyone does. Conservatives and liberals just have different economic policies to get to that place.

I thought last night's speech was interesting in that he struck a sort of defiant tone and that a dozen times or so he said he was going to go around Congress. But he was also surprisingly upbeat. It was this parallel narrative. On the one hand, I have ultimate faith in the American people. You guys are the best. I have no faith in Congress. You guys are the worst. And I think that that's not a dumb tact to take, but if you're trying to restore faith in the American people in Congress, I don't know that that's the way to do it.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Van.

VAN JONES, HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": Well, I saw it differently because, first of all, I thought that before the speech you heard conservatives going, he's going to be mean, he's going to be - I don't know, defiant, he's going to be pointing the finger.

CUPP: The White House leaked that kind of language.

JONES: And it turned out that I think he actually offered the Republicans a really great opportunity. Look at immigration. On immigration, he could have come out and said, you guys haven't done anything, people are suffering. Instead what he did was he teed it up but he backed off and he let Boehner and others have the space they need to move. That shows a level of political skill that he's often accused of not having and a level of actually trying to open the door for bipartisanship.

So he actually did some things that I thought were really good, opening the door for bipartisanship. I just hope the Republicans see those things, overlook some stuff they might ordinarily get offended by, and let's move forward together.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, S.E., on this issue of immigration reform -

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: That is one hope that Boehner and the president, House Speaker John Boehner and the president, that they can work on some sort of compromise that will benefit - could eventually benefit millions of people.

JONES: And he did - and he did that demagogue (ph). He could have demagogued but he didn't (ph).

CUPP: Yes, everyone -- it really does benefit both sides and everyone to come to some kind of agreement on immigration. And yesterday we got news that there might be some movement in the House toward that.

But I think what's interesting to me is, I've heard from some Democrats who have said -- and I've heard Democrats make this point - that it would have been great if the president had said, here are the specific things I want and this is what I'm specifically willing to give up. Because if you're a Democrat sitting in the chamber, you're hearing the president, and you think, well, yes, I know that's what you want. I want that, too. Help us get to the point with our friends across the aisle to actually reach some agreement. All he said was, here's what I want.

JONES: True. But I think --

CUPP: We're aware.

JONES: But I think part of the problem is, no matter what the president -- it's kind of what I call pinata politics. Wherever he swing, you hit him here, you hit him there. If he'd come forward, been very explicit about immigration, well, he's not leaving us any space. By him touching the issue, he makes it toxic (ph) for Republicans. If he steps back, he's not giving enough leadership.

I think that there are, though, Democrats and progressives who really haven't been heard from yet. The Tea Party -- we had four or five different responses from the Republicans last night just trying to cover all the chaos in their party, took out a lot of space for progressives.

CUPP: Or showcased our intellectual diversity.

JONES: That's another way of saying it.



CUPP: Yes. Yes.

JONES: Well, I'll tell you what, this tent's about to fall apart, it's so big.

But from my point of view, progressives didn't get a chance to really be heard from last night. There were some - we were -

BLITZER: Well, you don't think the president's a progressive?

JONES: Well, I think the president has a progressive wing that he has to manage and he spoke well of the climate. He spoke well of Guantanamo. We're happy about that. But there's some other stuff that, you know, listen, he's glad about the wars winding down. Not enough on surveillance. Glad he mentioned urban youth, but there was no strategy there. Just, you know, hope foundation (ph) take (ph) care of it. That's not enough.

Glad he mentioned income inequality. But then he's promoting this trade policy, this transpacific partnership that we think will make income inequality way worse. And so there's a progressive wing of the party was happy that he was there last night, was proud of a lot, but want more from him and we got drowned out by the concofney (ph) from the Republicans.

BLITZER: All right, van, thanks very much. Van Jones.

S.E. Cupp. We will see you 6:30 p.m. Eastern on "Crossfire," right?

CUPP: Yes, you will, me and Stephanie Cutter tonight.

BLITZER: What's the subject?

CUPP: Oh, you'll have to tune in to see.


CUPP: Probably more of State of the Union stuff.

BLITZER: 6:30 p.m. Eastern right after "The Situation Room."

CUPP: That's right.

BLITZER: One of my favorite shows.

JONES: Imagine (ph) that (ph).

CUPP: Ours, too.

BLITZER: All right, we've got some live pictures coming in right now from Bayonne, New Jersey. That illness-plagued Royal Caribbean Cruise ship is returning to port. We're going to go there when we come back.


BLITZER: Want to show you some live pictures from Bayonne, New Jersey. The Royal Caribbean Cruise ship is returning to port right now. The Explorer of the Seas cut short its voyage because of a major stomach bug. Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondent, is there in Bayonne for us. This is a huge problem with nearly 700 passenger and crew members, Elizabeth, are on board. They got sick. Vomiting, diarrhea. Explain what happened.


BLITZER: Unfortunately, I don't think Elizabeth Cohen can hear me. We just heard her say that. We will -- Elizabeth, are you there? Can you hear me now?

Unfortunately, I don't think she can hear me. All right, we're going to check in with Elizabeth. Let's reconnect with Elizabeth Cohen. We'll get the latest on what's going on. There you see the ship, the Explorer of the Seas, where nearly 700 people got very sick in recent days. They had to cut short their cruise in order to come back to Bayonne, New Jersey. That's the port where you see the ship right now. We'll check in with Elizabeth. We'll take a quick break.

And, also, other news we're following, a nightmare scenario realized on roads all over Atlanta. We're going to show you how thousands of people are holding up after being trapped in their cars, school buses all night on icy roads. How could this happen? We have the story.