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New York Braces For 15 Inches Of Snow; Treacherous I-95 Corridor; Afghanistan Frees Dozens Of Prisoners; Traffic Snarled by Winter Storm; Afghan Prisoners Freed

Aired February 13, 2014 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now Boston, New York, Philadelphia all getting hit by that powerful winter storm as it makes its way up the east coast.

Also right now, a cable T.V. and Internet megamerger has critics crying foul. Thirty-three million American households could be impacted.

And right now, the White House finally getting some good news on the Affordable Care Act. Has the troubled program finally turned a corner?

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in an extremely snowy nation's capital. A powerful nor'easter is dumping heavy snow from here in Washington, D.C. all the way up to New England. Schools, businesses, government offices in the nation's capital, they are closed. Roads are a mess. Thousands of flights all up and down the east coast have been grounded. This is the same storm system that pounded the southeast with ice, sleet and snow. At least 10 deaths are now blamed on the weather. More than 700,000 homes and businesses, they are without power right now.

We have reporters all across the region covering the storm's dramatic impact. Let's begin with CNN's Don Lemon. He's joining us from a very snowy New York City. How bad is it, Don?

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, it's really bad here, Wolf. You know, it's not that cold. It was actually a lot colder yesterday. But it's providing for what everyone's calling a slush, this disgusting slush that you see right now. And this is what you're dealing with. I just walked here across the street from CNN so you're dealing with the slush that's, like, on every single street and every single road.

And so, I just walked across here and really there are -- there's slush about this high. Even if you have snow boots on, it can go inside of those snow boots. Five to eight inches of snow so far. It's turning into an icy mix. And they believe they're going to -- it's going to get more ice, possibly turn back over to snow a little bit later on this evening and get as much as 11 to 15 inches of snow.

The big issue here, of course, has been transportation, people getting around. According to the mayor, the mayor says that the sanitation department, the people who plow the streets and sand the streets, that they got a really good start at it overnight and then this morning. But then, the rush hour came and people were out on the roads and the sanitation department couldn't get to it and that caused some problems for getting around.

Also, you know, this is a big transportation hub. So, the airports are experiencing delays -- experiencing cancellations. Kennedy, Newark, LaGuardia, all experiencing some cancellations and some delays. Amtrak as well. A big hub for that northeast corridor going up and down from Boston all the way down to Washington, D.C. so there are issues there.

And then, a big issue with the schools. Wolf, the schools have only been closed 11 times since 1978. The mayor did not close them this morning, and he is getting, you know, a little bit of pain from some folks here.

What you're hearing now, I don't know if you can hear that noise, those are plow trucks going right here around Columbus Circle. And also there were salt trucks earlier. A little bit of a scare as I was walking over, I don't know if you heard it on Ashleigh Banfield's live shot. One of those little sand -- one of those little plow trucks on the sidewalks, a little bob cat, started backfiring and everybody in New York City started ducking because they weren't sure what it was. So, a little bit of chaos here when it comes to that.

But, really, they're urging people here to stay off the roads. But most people, this is New York City, Wolf, you know, they went about their business. They may complain about it, but these are New Yorkers. They're a hearty bunch.

BLITZER: Why didn't the New York mayor close the schools today?

LEMON: Well, but he said that the storm came in a lot faster and a lot earlier than they thought. He said, listen, this is a snowstorm in New York City. This is the northeast. This is winter. This is what people deal with here. This is not Atlanta where people are not used to these sorts of conditions. It is -- it did come in faster than people thought. It may have been a little bit -- you know, there was more snow. But this isn't out of the ordinary, an extraordinary weather event for the northeast.

I mean, Wolf, you live in Washington, D.C. We have snowstorms every year. The last one that I remember that was even close to this, not even close to this, was back in 1996 when we had snow piled up to here. That's a big snowstorm. Twelve inches, not that bad. As I said, it's the northeast. It's winter. This is what happens.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, here, in Washington, Don, we're going to have more on this part of the story later. If it even looks like it's going to start snowing, they close the schools in D.C., northern Virginia, Maryland. They don't wait. They just -- they just close right away.

All right, Don, standby. I know it's cold out there. We're going to come back to you.

I want to go to Erin McPike right now. She's here in Washington on the national mall. Erin, the storm has turned the nation's capital really into a ghost town. The federal government's shut down.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The federal government is shut down, Wolf. D.C. public schools are closed. All the universities in the area are closed. The White House briefing even is canceled. And bus service has been suspended until further notice.

Now, the mayor of Washington did have a press conference within the last hour. And he said that they have put out 30,000 tons of salt -- pounds of salt, rather. Three hundred snowplows have gone out. But we haven't seen this road, which is right in front of the capital, be plowed more than once in the last six to seven hours. So, no wonder that so much of the city is really shut down. There's a Starbucks up the road that's been closed all morning, too.

And, Wolf, I want to spin around a little bit so that you can get a good shot of the mall. We do see people out here on the mall, so this part of the city isn't quite a ghost town, but look at how heavy this snow is. That's why it's been such a dangerous mess out here. And we should be getting a little bit more snow later in the afternoon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Just what we need, a little bit more snow here in Washington. All right, Erin, thanks very much.

So, the storm moving up the east coast has already forced more than 5,000 flight cancellations today. Renee Marsh is over at Reagan National Airport here in the nation's capital. How bad is this mangled travel situation, Rene?

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, put it like this, a picture speaks for itself. This plane is not going anywhere. It is parked. Take a walk with me over here. You can see these planes are not going anywhere either. They are parked at the gate. And that will be the case. Here at Reagan National Airport, it looks a lot like what probably many airports in the northeast look like, not much activity. Right now, their focus is clearing up the snow from the taxiways as well as from the runways. You can see in the distance there, that snow blower try to get the snow out of the way before they deem it safe for planes to actually take off and land here.

At this point, we're able to get this kind of access because the runways, they are closed here at Reagan. They have been closed since midnight, and they are not ready to reopen them at this point. We do know that Dulles, those runways were closed, but we just got word that those runways have since reopened.

Let's give you some numbers. We know that there are more than 6,000 cancellations at this hour. That is a lot. The areas that really getting hit the hardest, we're talking about Atlanta, Charlotte and Philadelphia. As far as the delays, things don't look good there either. We're talking about more than 3,000 -- nearly 4,000 delays. So, Wolf, again, I mean, take it all in. We don't get access like this very often where you just see the planes just sitting there. They are just sitting ducks, essentially, as crews are trying to clear out all of that snow right by the terminal because not only is the runway the issue, but you have snow right here. So, you have to make sure that when things are up and running, they're able to move those planes. So, that's what the focus is. That's where the concentration of the work is at this hour -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, you're saying Washington Dulles Airport, they're getting ready to reopen. It looks like the runways have been cleared. What about Reagan National, any word when that will reopen?

MARSH: You know, they hoped that they would be able to reopen these runways at around noon. However, not the case. No clear indication as to when they think it's safe. Look, bottom line is this, Wolf, they want to make sure that it's safe for these planes to land and take off. We actually spoke with the airport's operation manager. We have a little sound from him. And he explains what goes into making that decision whether to reopen the runways or not. Take a listen.


PAUL MALANDRINO, AIRPORT MANAGER, REAGAN NATIONAL AIRPORT: We had to shut down the runway in order to get it safe. And I say safe, if we have slush on the runway, you have to get rid of that slush or if you have ice because you don't want an airplane sliding off the runway.


MARSH: All right. So, that is the danger here. You know, until they believe that those planes can land without skidding off of the runway, they're not going to take any chances -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Which is smart. Rene is over at Reagan National Airport. Thank you.

Let's go to our Jennifer Gray. She's over at the CNN Severe Weather Center in Atlanta. So, what do we see for the rest of today? How do we see this storm playing out, Jennifer?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, it'll start to taper off later this evening into the overnight. But this was a nasty storm. Some areas north of New York City had snowfall rates of three to four inches per hour, blizzard-like conditions there. And look at these snowfall totals, 15 inches in Virginia. We had 13 in Philly, 11 in D.C. and 9.5 inches in New York City. Some of these numbers will increase as we go through the day. Still seeing some snow north of New York. It is starting to change over to rain. Same thing for you in Boston. D.C., you are quiet now. Could see more snow develop as we go through the afternoon hours.

But mainly rain now pulling into New York City and Boston. This is going to create a very slushy mess. Temperatures will dip below freezing as we go through the overnight hours tonight. And so, that is going to mean trouble for the morning commute tomorrow.

But these are additional snowfall totals. And away from the coast we could see about a foot of snow -- additional snowfall, as we go through the late evening hours right along the coast. Of course, the totals aren't quite as much along the I-95 corridor. We could see two to four inches possibly throughout the afternoon. But it's not only the snow, it's also the wind. And this is also adding more stress to those trees and power lines. And this is why we could see more power outages throughout the late afternoon. Sustained winds 29 miles per hour this afternoon in New York City. Gusts up to 45, 44-mile-per- hour gusts expected in Boston. So, Wolf, this is far from over. We're going to continue to see the snow, the rain and then possibly switching back over to snow as we go through the late evening hours.

BLITZER: All right, Jennifer, thanks very much. We'll stay in close touch with you.

Up next, stranded on the roads. We're going to put you in the car for a drive up what is now a treacherous I-95 corridor along the east coast of the United States.

And later, outraged at Afghanistan, the country frees dozens of prisoners, some linked to deadly attacks on U.S. troops. So, what will this do to the already-strained relationship between the United States and Afghanistan?


BLITZER: Let's continue our coverage of the weather emergency heading up the east coast right now. Our own Brian Todd is driving north on I-95. He's in northern Maryland right now. I take it, Brian, you're not far from the border. With Delaware, what are you seeing? What have you seen? It's been quite a day so far.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Quite a day, Wolf, and a lot of treacherous conditions along the I-95 corridor. Right now it's a bit of a lull in the storm. We just got hit with a little bit of freezing rain. We're in northeastern Maryland, near the Delaware line, heading toward Philadelphia and the Delaware Memorial Bridge. But there are treacherous conditions along the I-95 corridor, both on I-95 and west of here. We just got word of a four-vehicle accident, including two overturned tractor-trailer trucks westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That's a long way west of here, but that involved four vehicles and a 65-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike is closed down, we're told, on the westbound side because of that accident.

We came upon earlier today two tractor-trailers overturned right on the D.C. beltway because of the snow and ice that had affected them. And I talked to one of the drivers. He didn't want to go on camera, but he said the steering just got away from him. His truck just completely flipped over, went into a ditch. He had to be rescued from that truck. He had some minor injuries to his hands, but he was OK.

The other driver of the other vehicle that we came across just minutes earlier than that, same thing, a flipped over tractor-trailer truck, it closed half of the D.C. beltway off for some time. That driver was OK as well. But very treacherous conditions in the D.C. area.

Earlier today, Virginia state officials have said that in that state overnight and into this morning they got reports of 840 plus crashes in the state just in the overnight and early morning hours this morning. We were out in Virginia, south of D.C. on I-95. We came across a guy who had just done a 180, just flipped right toward the oncoming lanes on I-95 south. We stopped and asked if he was OK. He was all right. And we got our towline out and gave him kind of a lift out of his jam there. His name was Edwin Martinez (ph). He went on his way.

But those are just some of the conditions that we encountered, Wolf, in an update on what we're heading towards into Pennsylvania. Some of the snow and ice is getting compounded there. A lot of the major highways are getting cleared off. But again, we're looking for a second punch. A second punch of the snow is coming towards Philadelphia and toward the D.C. area in the coming hours. So we may be in a bit of the eye of the storm right now where things are a little bit calm, but we're not out of it yet.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Certainly not. And I know you're going to be having much more coming up later today in "The Situation Room" as well. Brian, thanks very much. Thanks for helping that guy out on the Washington beltway as well. I'm sure he was deeply, deeply appreciative.

Just ahead this hour, much more coverage of the breaking news on this snow emergency. The mayor of New York, he's shoveling some snow. He's also facing some serious questions about his decision not to close the schools in New York City today.

Also coming up, they are accused of attacks that killed U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but now these prisoners have been set free. The Afghan prisoner release triggering outrage in the United States.


BLITZER: The release of dozens of prisoners in Afghanistan is triggering outrage here in the United States. The U.S. military says some of those prisoners are directly linked to attacks that killed or wounded American troops. But today, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, basically told the United States to butt out.


PRES. HAMID KARZAI, AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If the Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. and should be of no concern to the U.S. And I hope that the United States will stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures and judicial authority. And I hope that the United States will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, the Obama administration, the Pentagon, they say these are dangerous insurgents. These were terrorists who killed American and NATO troops. You're talking to officials over there. How dangerous are these prisoners, dozens of them, who were released by Hamid Karzai?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the most dangerous, and even deeper if it's at all possible to be a deeper problem than that, Wolf, you know this very well, relations with Karzai are at a possible all-time low. He is weeks away from an election. He'll be leaving office. The U.S. can't get him to sign a security agreement that would keep U.S. troops there to help his country after 2014. They believe they had an agreement with Karzai that these people would not be released.

How mad is the U.S. military? They are calling this a breach of trust. I have 23 pages of U.S. military evidence against these people. The U.S. military very happy to provide it. That's how furious they are about this because they believe they had an agreement.

And just a couple of details about these people. Some 30 percent of those released, the U.S. says, were involved in direct attacks killing or wounding U.S. troops/coalition forces. A total of 25 of the insurgents linked to IED attacks, 33 when they were captured had explosive residue after being captured, tested positive for it.

The U.S. says if these people, as they return to their towns and villages, wherever they're going, if they find them involved in activity again, they will seek to capture them. They will obey the rules, they say, and turn them back over to Afghanistan. If they get into fire fights with them, they will kill them, they say, if they come after U.S. troops again. Wolf, this 13 year war some 2,000 U.S. troops killed, some 20,000 wounded.

BLITZER: Yes, the longest war in U.S. history. Barbara, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on the outrage over this prisoner release. Joining us is the retired U.S. army lieutenant, General Jerry Boykin. He's a former deputy undersecretary of defense, former commander of U.S. special forces.

When you hear about this, general, what goes through your mind?

LT. GEN. JERRY BOYKIN, FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. SPECIAL FORCES: Well, Wolf, like most Americans, and certainly all veterans, I am absolutely outraged by this. You know, Karzai needs to remember that he's in that position today because of the United States. And Afghanistan is a sovereign nation today because of the United States. Don't forget that, Mr. Karzai.

BLITZER: You know, there's no doubt that the U.S. paid a huge, huge price, not only the thousands killed, tens of thousands who've come home from Afghanistan injured with long-term disabilities, but hundreds of billions of dollars over these 13 years spent in Afghanistan. And they still want to stay there. A lot of U.S. officials say the U.S. should still remain in Afghanistan even after all troops are supposed to be out by the end of this year, maybe 10,000 remaining. And they also want to provide billions and billions of dollars to Afghanistan to build roads and bridges, infrastructures, schools, hospitals. A lot of the officials, members of Congress are saying, maybe the U.S. should spend that money here in the United States rather than in Afghanistan. And there will be outrage as a result of what the Afghan government did today.

BOYKIN: Well, that's right, Wolf. And, remember, it's not only U.S. troops. These thugs that are being released also killed Afghan National Army as well as police. It is my personal view, Wolf, that what the United States needs to do is announce a withdrawal that begins tomorrow.

I'm telling you, this guy is corrupt. We know he's corrupt. He has been for a long time. And what he's doing is trying to ingratiate himself to the Taliban. He saw what the Taliban did to the president or leader that was left in place by the Russians when they pulled out in 1989. They brutalized this guy. They killed him, dragged him through the streets, made a public spectacle of him.

And what this guy, Karzai, is trying to do is ensure that that doesn't happen to him. So he's closing rights with the Taliban at the expense of the United States and all that we have done for him. He sees us as no longer a factor in the long-term stability of Afghanistan. And I think we ought to start to withdrawal tomorrow. It would be great if we could be out before the election in April and leave this guy standing on his own. I mean this is outrageous and there has to be a penalty for this.

BLITZER: General, thanks very much for joining us. Jerry Boykin, retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. Thanks for sharing some thoughts on this very, very sensitive subject. We'll continue our conversation.

BOYKIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So is Obamacare on the mend right now? There are new enrollment numbers that are coming in as far as the health care program is concerned and more people indeed are signing up. We have details. That's coming up later this hour.

But up next, the northeast getting pounded and pounded by a very dangerous winter storm. We're live from the snow zone with a fresh look at how the region is coping.