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Hero Who Wouldn't Give Up; Birmingham Battered By Storm; "With Or Without" Congress; Sick Ship Arriving

Aired January 29, 2014 - 07:30   ET


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: A very poignant reminder for the entire country last night.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: My recovery has not been easy he says. Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy.

STARR (voice-over): Perhaps the loudest applause went not to the president, but to this man, Army Ranger Cory Remsberg.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Cory is here tonight, like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsberg never gives up and he does not quit.

STARR: His story of bravery and recovery is both incredible and inspiring. Remsberg led a squad in Afghanistan back in 2009. It was his tenth deployment overseas. On October 1st, he and his fellow soldiers successfully bungled off insurgents on the out skirts of Kandahar. But on their way back to base, they would trigger a 500- pound roadside bomb.

One of his soldiers, 24-year-old Sergeant Robert Sanchez was killed. Remsberg was tossed into the air by the blast. His head was smashed in by shrapnel. The wound is still visible today. He was in a coma for three months. President Obama first met Remsberg in the hospital in 2009, visiting several times in his years of recovery. And his recovery is nothing short of miraculous.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: 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 stronger. Day by day, he's learned to speak again and stand again and walk again. He's working toward the day when he can serve his country again.


STARR: You know, sometimes we speak so easily of the nation's blood and treasure in these wars. But for Afghanistan, it is always worth remembering some 2,000 American troops have lost their lives, 20,000 wounded -- Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: You know, Barbara, you've taught me a lot about this issue in our coverage over the years. It was interesting to me last night. Of course, the sergeant deserves it, of course, all the fighting men and women who suffered similar fates deserves it. There is no question and it's great to be recognized by our leaders.

The importance, very few sentences on Afghanistan last night and it's going to be a huge pressure point going forward about whether or not that country can be left and under what circumstances hopefully that emotion, that dedication to the victims of that, the fighting men and women who were there, will follow through into the policy considerations, the hard choices that will have to be made going forward.

STARR: Well, I'll tell you there will be a meeting at the White House next week to talk about this very subject. The president has got to make some decisions about how many troops he might want to leave behind in Afghanistan. But more importantly where this war is right now, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has to make a decision whether he even wants continued U.S. help. If he does not, everyone will come home by the end of this year -- Chris.

CUOMO: Barbara Starr, thank you very much for the reporting -- Kate.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Chris. We're going to take a break. Coming up next, more on the wild weather that has walloped the south. People stranded by the storm forced to spend the night in places like Home Depot even.

Plus we're also going to talk with the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama about his hard hit city. Did they see this coming? What are they doing now?


BOLDUAN: Welcome back to NEW DAY. Breaking news this morning, look at this. Getting our first live look at I-75 in Cob County, Georgia, these pictures, these aerial pictures are truly incredible. This is not the morning commute. This is last night's evening commute and they are still stuck. And to be honest, we've been watching this just before we came on. None of these cars are moving. You can almost guess that these cars are abandoned.

It's I-75 in Cob County, Georgia, a major highway and these are stuck. And almost in the top, you can see it looks like a pileup right there. These cars aren't going anywhere fast. Not what people on the ground, people in Cob County, people in Georgia and definitely not emergency management officials want to be seeing as the sun comes up this morning.

We are going to be covering this very closely because this is going to be a very tough day for everyone in the south. Speaking of that, let's get back to Carol Costello who is in Atlanta on the ground for us with the very latest. Carol, I don't know if you had a monitor out there and you could see those pictures, but this is a big problem today.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: It's like how do you spell nightmare? Atlanta. That's how you spell nightmare this morning. You know, to our friends up north, looking at that picture, they're probably saying to themselves, there's really not that much snow on the ground, only 2 inches of snow fell and then it got very, very cold. A lot of people are wondering why it paralyzed the entire city and outlying suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

Well, let me explain. The snow began falling around noon yesterday. So schools decided to close at the same time businesses started to close. Government offices were then closed. By 1:00, everyone in the entire city was trying to get home. I was trying to leave CNN myself at 1:00 in the afternoon yesterday.

After waiting for two hours in the parking lot, I finally gave up. That's how bad traffic was. Now even if the salt trucks were out and about, they could not get through that heavy traffic. So that meant a lot of the roads went untreated and then the temperature started to drop.

It got cold and very dangerous to drive. Hence you had backups like this for 18 hours straight. Some of those people have been stuck for five or six hours and they are just trying to work. The National Guard has been called in. There's a state of emergency here right now and a lot of unanswered questions frankly.

BOLDUAN: I mean, just look at all those accidents you can see there. We're watching these live pictures as they are coming from our affiliate WSB out of Atlanta. You can just see the traffic. I mean, we're going to have to continue to watch this throughout the morning. Those cars aren't moving at all.

You can imagine if they are still stuck there right now, the fact you mentioned this earlier, Carol, that that means that emergency vehicles, any kind of truck trying to get through to help, they can't get through either.

COSTELLO: That's right. People are abandoning their cars and after they got into accidents, help wasn't coming any time fast, so they simply got out of their cars and maybe got into another car with a friendly stranger who got them home eventually after hours and hours of waiting traffic. So all of that stuff is left over from last night and it's causing enormous problems this morning.

BOLDUAN: Enormous problems all throughout today that's for sure. Carol, we're going to check back in with you. You've been all over this. We'll get back to you in just a second. Thank you so much. We're talking about Atlanta, Georgia, that area is hard hit.

Also in Alabama, it's been hard hit as well and the storm has taken a tragic turn. Right now, there is a state of emergency with 350 National Guard troops called in. Ice covered roads being blamed for five deaths so far. And abandoned cars are chocking the streets of Birmingham where 800 students were stuck in school buildings overnight.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell is joining us now live on the phone. Mayor, I know you're busy and I really appreciate you jumping on the phone with us. So first off, what is the latest with all the students that have trapped in their schools? I saw one report that some nearly two dozen schools had students trapped inside yesterday.

MAYOR WILLIAM BELL, BIRMINGHAM (via telephone): That is correct. The students are safe. They're warm. They're being given food and water. We're trying to communicate with the parents that the teachers are making every effort that their children are safe. Like any parent, until your child is safely in your arms, you're not satisfied and we understand that. We want to make sure that all the children are taken care of.

Let me say that the description of what Carol gave happened in Atlanta is identical to what happened in Birmingham, but there's one difference. We were not in the predictive model that was given by the weather sources of receiving any snow. If anything, we would get a light dusting with no accumulation. That was in total error.

So by the time we saw what was happening, it was too late. All of the businesses and schools began to let out. It clogged up our interstate system, which then led to a clogging of the side roads and many people became stranded.

We have had to scurry to try to play catch up and all of our people working in the public works department, our public safety units within the fire and the police department. They've all been out overnight to try to deal with the stranded motorists.

BOLDUAN: Now, Mayor, I think maybe folks can understand when you didn't anticipate it. I don't think people are going to accept and I don't think you expect them to, we were caught off guard. You've got students stuck in schools.

BELL: What I'm trying to say is we're trying to play catch up.

BOLDUAN: I understand that. Do you need more resources? I mean, obviously, Birmingham, Alabama, not a place that we normally talk about winter weather like this. Is it a shortage of resources that you're dealing with right now?

BELL: We basically have what they call sand trucks and we have all of them out, but we do have a shortage. Most of the heavy equipment has been sent south ward in anticipation of the snow. Well, now they've had to reverse and send those vehicles back up here towards the Birmingham area and they started arriving probably about two hours ago.

BOLDUAN: Wow. So Mayor, what can people in Birmingham and the surrounding areas expect because I got to tell you, I spoke with a principal from a neighboring community who is stuck and has been with students in her school all night and she sounded exhausted. She said they were completely caught off guard with this. What can you tell residents of Birmingham that you are going right now to fix this and how much longer are they going to have to deal with this?

BELL: The sun is just beginning to come up and the radiant heat will help us clear up some of these roads. We'll be able to get buses into those schools to be able to get the children out and establish pickup points for those students. For the stranded motorists, we've had the police department and state troopers get to those motorists and get to those safe havens. We're going to try to get them back to their vehicles so we can get them out of the way and moving along the roadways and interchanges.

BOLDUAN: Well, this is far from over this morning. Mayor William Bell, let you get back to it. Appreciate you taking the time to jump on the phone with us this morning.

BELL: Thank you very much.

BOLDUAN: Of course -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Kate, thank you very much. Coming up on NEW DAY, there was another important audience for the president's state of the union address, the voters, you. With this big midterm election battle coming, many voters are out there listening to the president thinking about whether or not the Democrats will be the right thing for them going forward. Did what you heard last night make a difference with you, with his republican opposition? We'll break it down for you.


CUOMO: Now to the coverage of the president's state of the union address, let's bring in CNN chief national correspondent, John King. John, the obvious question coming out of last night is whether or not the how more than what will be effective for the president. What do you think?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the use of executive action to raise the minimum wage on federal contracts is proof of his frustration. He got almost nothing done in 2013 that he asked the Congress to do. The Republicans won't give him much of it. Democrats opposed some of it. So you see that his way used the power of the White House to shape things as much as he can.

What was telling after is how quickly Democrats after were rushing to criticize the president. But you had mark bag given of Alaska. You had a senator not on the ballot but a race in his state of West Virginia saying the president was overstepping on executive action. He's saying I want him to come to Alaska so I can tell him how wrong he is.

CUOMO: When the president went into this, they felt more negatively about Congress. The instant poll afterwards, was we don't know about this executive action.

KING: Close to 70 percent said they thought the president's policies would move the country's forward, only 8 percent thought they could be enacted. They look at this town and they think it doesn't work. The question is how does it affect the 2014 midterm climate? When you're a president at 43 percent, it's weak. It's not as weak as he was. If you look at the House, if you take out all the races locked up, one of the saddest thing in the democracy is about 50 are viewed as competitive. By the time we get to Election Day that will probably be 20.

CUOMO: But then you extend that truth into how the process works and it actually helps you understand why it's so hard to get anything done.

KING: You have almost a Republican lock on the House at the moment. You have a Democrat president because of history, of the 50 competitive races. Nancy Pelosi would have to win 43. The Republicans also have a shot, if you look at the Senate. They have a net gain of six, Democrats retiring in South Alaska. Republicans think those three are almost in the bag already. Then you look at Arkansas, Alaska. You get those six. You're there if Mitch McConnell can hold his see.

CUOMO: The president, if he cares about keeping those seats, he wouldn't be as aggressive as he was last night. Does that mean he's thinking more about me right now and not helping the team down the road?

KING: He wanted the president to focus mostly on this income inequality raising the relatively popular. When the president -- the only defiant part of the speech was really the health care part where he said you're not going to change it, let's move on. Those democrats would have preferred he said nothing. But that defiant part was proof to both parties that the president not only thinks he's passed the worst of the health care debacle. He's going to fight for it. P republicans will step back a little bit now and let Democrats lead the charge just to show it's not just Republicans.

CUOMO: Harry Reid also said he expected his vulnerable Democrats to be nice and embrace the president.

All right, we are going to take a break here. Thanks to John King. Coming up on NEW DAY, I'll break you in half. I'll throw you off a balcony. They are something that a congressman said to a reporter and it was caught on tape. You're going to hear from the reporter straight ahead.


BOLDUAN: Welcome back to NEW DAY. Royal Caribbean's "Explorer of the Seas" is almost home. The troubled cruise set to dock in New Jersey later today. Federal health officials now put the number of folks stricken by that mystery stomach bug at more than 650. Can cruise operators make sure it doesn't happen again? CNN's Elizabeth Cohen is at Home Port in New Jersey with much more on this -- Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, where it is freezing cold. They're going from the Caribbean to this frigid weather. Some of the passengers have been getting better and they're off and about special running around on the boat, but other ones are still feeling mighty sick.


COHEN (voice-over): Royal Caribbean's cruise ship is due home to New Jersey later today. For some passengers it couldn't be soon enough. The Centers for Disease Control advised "Explorer of the Seas" to cut its voyage short after a stomach virus sickened at least 629 passenger and 54 crew members on board.

According to data from the CDC's web site, that's the most sick patients reported on a single cruise ship in the last 20 years. To stem the tide of illnesses, staffers sanitizing surfaces and isolating sick patients even ending self service at the buffet lines so passengers don't contaminate the food. After visiting the infirmary, ill passengers were encouraged to stay in their cabins.

ARNEE DODD, "EXPLORER OF THE SEAS" CRUISE SHIP PASSENGER (via telephone): All of us quarantined had labelled cabins so they knew who was quarantined. And they told us, call room service every few hours and everything is complementary from here on in for you.

COHEN: Now Royal Caribbean is adding on even more perks to compensate passengers. In addition to a 50 percent refund on their trip and a 50 percent credit toward a future booking, passengers report they've received $400 to spend on board, free Wi-Fi, reimbursed parking at the port and even free wine and rum.

SAL PANTO, JR., "EXPLORER OF THE SEAS" CRUISE SHIP PASSENGER (via telephone): There are disgruntled people on this ship, there's no doubt about it. However, I think most of us feel that we've been more than compensated. They are doing out of their way to make everyone happy on the ship.

COHEN: After the ship pulls into port and passengers go home, the CDC will continue investigating how this happened.


COHEN: Now, while the passengers are on their way back home, lab samples are on their way to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. They actually were supposed to be there by now, but not quite yet. They hope they arrive soon so they can answer what has been making so many people sick -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Until then the mystery continues, unfortunately. Elizabeth, thank you very much for that.

We'll take another break. But coming up next on NEW DAY, a teenager is lucky to be alive after falling 3,500 feet to the ground in a sky diving accident. We're going to talk to her father and her surgeon about how she managed to survive and also her prognosis going forward.



BOLDUAN (voice-over): Once in a generation storm. An historic and deadly winter storm shuts down the southern U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I was so much scared. I was like if I don't get home tonight, I'm going to freak out. BOLDUAN: State troopers sent in to rescue teachers and students stranded in their Atlanta schools overnight. Hundreds still there at this hour. Ice and snow cause nearly a thousand wrecks in one city alone and snarl traffic into a complete standstill in others.