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THE SITUATION ROOM
Dangerous Mid-Air Near Collision; Army Announces Review of Bergdahl's Disappearance; 35 Million in Severe Weather Zone
Aired June 3, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thanks very much.
Happening now, breaking news -- bracing for the worst. Thirty- five million people in the severe weather zone right now. Parts of the Midwest under watches for dangerous tornadoes and destructive winds.
Innocent until proven guilty -- the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff responding to growing backlash against Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's release. And lawmakers and outraged soldiers who say the former POW is a deserter whose, quote, "selfish act cost innocent American lives."
And the serious noise -- did underwater microphones capture Malaysia Flight 370 crashing into the Indian Ocean?
We have details on new audio set to be released just a few hours from now.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: All that coming up.
But let's begin with the breaking news just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're just learning about a very dangerous near collision between a U.S. military aircraft and a Russian fighter jet.
Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.
He's got the breaking details -- what happened?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a U.S. official tells me that this is the most dangerous close passes in decades -- one of the most -- between U.S. and Russian warplanes. This that took place on April 23rd in international waters off the eastern coast of Russia.
A U.S. Air Force RC-135U surveillance aircraft on a routine mission intercepted by a single Russian Su-27 Flanker aircraft. That Su-27 crossed the nose of the U.S. aircraft within just 100 feet, making a maneuver, I'm told, straight out of the movies, so close that the American jet was caught in the jet wash of the Russian fighter.
The fly-by, I'm told, put the lives of the U.S. crew in jeopardy, at which point the crew aborted its mission. The U.S. raised the case at the highest levels with General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussing it with his counterpart, the Russian chief of defense.
Since then, Wolf, I'm told that an incident like this has not happened again.
BLITZER: Was this directly, this incident, directly related to the crisis in Ukraine?
Has there been an uptick in these kinds of close encounters between U.S. and Russian military aircraft?
SCIUTTO: Well, they've certainly been keeping their eyes open for this. This took place at the height of the crisis, just after Russian troops annexed Ukraine and with tens of thousands of Russian forces massed on the border with Ukraine. And a little more than a week after another Russian jet buzzed the destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, in the Black Sea, off Crimea. That jet came within 1,000 yards of the ship. I'm told that there is no clear pattern of increased fly-bys since the start of the Ukraine crisis.
However, the Pentagon has noticed an up tick over the last two years, particularly along the Alaskan coast. That is where this took place. Though, those have been, in general, professional in nature. This most recent fly-by a much more recent event. I mean these kinds of things happen. They're part of the game of cat and mouse, as you have U.S. surveillance warplanes traveling around China, around Russia.
But they tend to be under a set of rules. You only come so close. You come with warning. This one came very much outside of the bounds of that, put the crew's lives in danger. And that's why they raised this at the highest levels.
BLITZER: These kinds of things occurred all the time during the cold war. But we assumed it was over, that cold war. And this -- this is certainly a remnant of that.
SCIUTTO: Absolutely. This is the most serious in decades. We're talking in the last 30 some odd, 40 years.
All right, Jim Sciutto reporting.
Thanks very much.
There are significant new details coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now from the Pentagon about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's mysterious 2009 disappearance and how U.S. military leaders could be planning to address the lingering questions it's raising. This as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is reaching out to fellow veterans and soldiers, attempting to reassure them that the Defense Department will get to the bottom of what really happened.
CNN is covering this story from every angle with reporters and guests standing by.
Let's go to the Pentagon.
Our correspondent, Barbara Starr, has got some new information -- Barbara.
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no one is exactly talking about punishment yet, but the Pentagon made clear today there will be an investigation.
STARR (voice-over): The Army announced a comprehensive, coordinated review of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance and captivity. CNN has learned the Army will also ask Bergdahl about reports he may have tried to escape, but was recaptured. But they are not asking him anything just yet.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We obviously have not been interrogating Sergeant Bergdahl. He is recovering from five years of captivity with the Taliban.
STARR: Today, President Obama defended the decision to get Bergdahl back.
OBAMA: Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don't condition that.
STARR: It comes as allegations continue to swirl that Bergdahl deserted his unit.
MATTHEW VIERKANT, SERVED WITH BERGDAHL IN AFGHANISTAN: Bergdahl left his equipment and walked out on his platoon and his oath to the United States. So he definitely isn't a hero. He definitely is a deserter.
STARR: Matthew Vierkant served with Bergdahl. He is represented by a Republican strategist.
The political controversy drove the nation's highest ranking officer, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to respond on his Facebook page, saying, "Like any American, he's innocent until proven guilty. Our Army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred."
A 2012 "Rolling Stone" article detailed a seemingly disillusioned Bergdahl and a unit in trouble, saying, "From the start, everything seemed to go wrong."
When a lieutenant was removed from duty it was, quote, "quickly followed by a collapse in unit morale and an almost complete breakdown of authority."
But Bergdahl's former team leader insists allegations the men weren't doing their jobs correctly were not true.
EVAN BLUETOW, BERGDAHL'S FORMER PLATOON LEADER: I believe that was incredibly blown out of proportion and there was no discipline issues in our platoon.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
STARR: U.S. officials tell CNN during the time Bergdahl was in captivity, that five year period, there were, in fact, a couple of instances where they had intelligence indicating where he might be being held, but they did not stage a rescue mission because it was deemed too risky to Sergeant Bergdahl, that they felt that the captors would kill him if the U.S. tried to rescue him -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thank you.
Up on Capitol Hill, there's growing outrage, actually, from both sides of the aisle at the White House decision to make this controversial swap.
Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is joining us now.
He's got more on what's going on.
What's the latest there -- Joe?
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is just in to CNN. Democratic Senator, Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not holding back, clearly not happy about the administration's handling of the Bowe Bergdahl situation and the prisoner exchange.
Tony Blinken of the White House staff called to apologize for letting her know late about the exchange. But it's pretty clear Senator Feinstein is not satisfied with what the administration said to her.
She talked about this just a few minutes ago at the Capitol.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: It comes with some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following the law. And in an issue of this kind of concern, to a committee that bears the oversight responsibility, I think you can see that we're very dismayed about it.
SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-GA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: There has not even been the weakest case, in my opinion, made that he was suffering, from a health standpoint, to the degree to which a decision had to be made immediately.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: You also saw Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. He's pretty steamed, too. He had some harsh words for the administration when I asked him about it earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHAMBLISS: Senator, the White House says that you all were kept in the loop on this.
CHAMBLISS: The White House is wrong about that.
JOHNS: I mean we...
CHAMBLISS: I haven't had a conversation with the White House on this in a year-and-a-half. Now, if that's keeping us in the loop, then, you know, this administration is more arrogant than I thought they were.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: Senator Chambliss wants the administration to declassify information about the five Taliban leaders who were released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.
Not everyone on the Hill, though, was blind-sided by this news. Senator majority leader, Harry Reid, told me he heard about it on Friday, the day before it happened -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Joe, thanks very much.
Coming up, by the way, at the top of the hour, I'll speak with that Republican, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss. He'll join us live in our next hour.
But let's talk about all of this.
Joining us right now, Eli Lake the senior international correspondent for "The Daily Beast."
Also joining us, our national security analyst, the former CIA officer, Bob Baer.
Eli, you've done some major reporting. Back in 2012, the top intelligence officials in the U.S. government, including the then Defense secretary, the former CIA chief, Leon Panetta, they thought this was a bad idea.
What has changed? ELI LAKE, SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, what's changed this time, at least according to the office of the director of National Intelligence, is that there are these...
BLITZER: That's James Clapper?
LAKE: That's James Clapper.
BLITZER: He opposed it then?
LAKE: He opposed it then, but there are a couple of factors. One, these are guarantees now from the emir of Qatar that these guys are going to be monitored and he felt that those guarantees mitigated a lot of the risks and concerns that he had before.
Second of all, what I've heard is that the view is that these guys, while very senior Taliban members, and, of course, very important to the Haqqani Network and the Taliban today, do not have the same kind of human networks that they did even a couple of years ago. And that also mitigates the risk.
And finally, there are going to be fewer American soldiers in Afghanistan within a year, by the time they're allowed to travel back to Afghanistan.
BLITZER: There will still be 10,000 there, almost 10,000...
BLITZER: -- after 2015.
Let's talk a little -- next year, in 2015.
Let's talk a little bit about that, Bob Baer, because Senator John McCain, he's very clear on this point.
Let me pay a clip for you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: They are Taliban and al Qaeda.
Don't you understand that?
Were you around?
Yes, you're -- like you said, you're an old man. You might remember that in 2001, al Qaeda found a haven with the Taliban. That's why we initially invaded Afghanistan. To somehow separate these people from al Qaeda, it's just damn foolishness.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So how dangerous do you think these five detainees are, Bob? BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't think they are particularly dangerous. You know, they're -- it's been said, they're out of date. They haven't been there in 10 years, in Afghanistan.
Our main enemy, the Haqqani Network, is in place. They're returning -- even if they were to return today to Afghanistan, it wouldn't change the fortunes on the battlefield. They're just not that important. They're senior, yes. But -- and I think Qatar will keep them for a year, will hold to the agreement. I think this is really a tempest in a teapot, frankly.
BLITZER: Let me pick up on that thought, because, Eli, you've done some reporting on this. One of those five, a Taliban leader by the name of Mullah Mohammad Fazi, he's wanted by the United Nations for war crimes, accused of killing -- literally massacring thousands of Afghan Shiites during the Taliban rule in the 1990s.
He's an internationally wanted war criminal by the United Nations.
As far as you know, has the U.S. ever released someone who's wanted by the United Nations for alleged war crimes?
LAKE: I can't remember that. I mean and I also would say that there's also an extraordinary point here, which is that the Taliban is considered by John McCain to be a terrorist organization. But by considering this to be an exchange of prisoners of war, it's almost like conferring a new status on the Taliban, which I think is an important point legalistically at this point.
BLITZER: What do you mean by that, at this point?
Because the people that held Sergeant Bergdahl -- the people that held Sergeant Bergdahl, they were the Haqqani Network in Pakistan, what's -- remnants of the Taliban, if you will. Back in 2012 Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State, declared the Haqqani Network to be a terrorist organization.
He was being held by what the U.S. considers to be a terrorist organization.
LAKE: That's true. And the Afghan Taliban, though, is not considered a terrorist organization. But I would just point out -- and at this point. I haven't done the reporting yet to say if these two things are connected.
But according to the people who keep track of the drone statistics, there hasn't been a drone strike in Pakistan for almost six months, since December 25, 2013.
And I think in some ways, this is part of a way for the Obama administration to try, in their view, to create the atmosphere for some sort of arrangement or agreement with the Taliban when the U.S. forces leave.
BLITZER: What do you make, Bob, of the life these five detainees are now going to have in Qatar?
They're going to be there for the next year. But from what we're hearing, they'll be able to drive around, talk to folks, do whatever they want. The only thing they won't really be able to do is get out of Qatar and go back to Afghanistan or Pakistan. And they supposedly will be monitored by the Qatari government.
What do you make of that?
BAER: Oh, I think they'll be very active politically. They'll be making contacts throughout the Gulf, raising money for the Taliban and the rest of it.
But it will be much more of a political level than an armed resistance.
But I'd like to go back to Eli's point that the war is winding down. The drone strikes are tapering off. We are looking for some sort of settlement in Afghanistan we can live with and that will, I guarantee you, include part of the Taliban. And I think we'd be very happy if we could get rid of the most militant, the most radical ones and let them stay in Pakistan.
BLITZER: You believe, Eli, that this deal was not just a deal designed to free Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, but also a deal designed to try to improve relations with the Taliban, is that what you're saying?
LAKE: Well, when you talk to people about the history of these negotiations going back to 2011, it was always the understanding that this would set the tone or the atmosphere for a wider reconciliation. But I would say that the first reports from the Taliban, albeit their spokesman, is to say this would have no effect at all on the peace process.
BLITZER: And, finally to you, Bob Baer, does it make any difference if he was a deserter, wasn't a deserter, in terms of the price that the U.S. had to pay to get him out?
BAER: Well, no, let's -- let, Wolf, let's be fair. This guy had psychological problems. To take a compass and bottle of water, as the story goes, and wander off into the Taliban territory, very vicious people, that he's lucky to have his head knocked out. He had psychological problems. And we're going to have to look at it in that context.
BLITZER: Bob Baer, thanks very much.
Eli Lake, thanks to you, as well.
When we come back, al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate releasing chilling new video of an interrogation of suspected U.S. informants just hours before their execution.
And a new underwater recording of a major activity on the ocean floor. Could it hold the clue to finding Flight 370?
BLITZER: Getting word of serious weather problems about to hit Omaha, Nebraska. Take a look at the live pictures you're seeing on the right part of your screen over there. Some ominous pictures, some clouds developing. You can see the radar there. We're monitoring this situation.
Chad Myers, Indra Petersons, they are monitoring the situation for us. Chad in the severe weather center. Indra will be joining us from Nebraska. We'll get there shortly. But get ready, folks out there. This could be very, very severe, what's about to happen there. We'll stay on top of it.
Other news we're following, we're getting new details about an American man who was allegedly planning to murder U.S. troops. All this coming amid a growing threat from al Qaeda's most dangerous branch in Yemen.
CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom has reported extensively from Yemen. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You're working your sources. What are you learning, Mohammed?
MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the terror threat emanating towards Americans from Yemen is as strong as it's ever been, and it's very much in the news today.
On the same day that an American Yemeni man in Rochester, New York, we're learning more details about him. He's been charged with, among other things, plotting to kill U.S. troops, we're reminded, yet again, of just how resurgent, how emboldened, how strong al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, which is considered to be the strongest threat towards Americans, worldwide still remains.
JAMJOOM (voice-over): The men seen here in a new propaganda video, being interrogated by members of al Qaeda, accused of helping the U.S. in Yemen targeted terrorists, allegedly planting tracking chips in al Qaeda vehicles, like this one, which the group says were hit by U.S. drones.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, says the men confessed and were executed.
The drone strikes came shortly after CNN's Barbara Starr first obtained this video, showing a large gathering of AQAP operatives meeting openly in Yemen. Since then, the U.S. and the Yemeni government have stepped up their efforts.
ROBERT MCFADDEN, THE SOUFAN GROUP: From the looks of it, the air strikes, Yemen air force, perhaps with U.S. support, as well as U.S. assets certainly stirred up a hornet's nest.
JAMJOOM: Now, surviving members have scattered and are taking the fight to the streets of Yemen's major cities. MCFADDEN: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has essentially gone all in. I mean, it's not just attacks or operations in the hinterland in Elbian (ph) and Shebwa (ph). But recently, they've done some very bold attacks in Sanaa itself.
JAMJOOM: The U.S. embassy in the country's capital has been shut down for nearly a month, and sources say there are no plans to reopen it any time soon.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., this Yemeni-American man, Mufid Elfgeeh, is accused of plotting to kill U.S. service members in Rochester, New York. The U.S. says Elfgeeh, who ran a local business, quote, "expressed his support for various terrorist groups, including al Qaeda."
Elfgeeh has not yet entered a plea and tonight, while it's unclear if he belonged to AQAP, Elfgeeh's arrest now throws yet another spotlight on Yemen and the al Qaeda threat there.
JAMJOOM: Yemeni officials are telling me that they're going to need a lot more support from their American and Saudi allies if they're going to win this fight. They say the military is at least stretched way too thin there.
And any time, Wolf, we're also hearing from U.S. officials, as well as other western officials there in Yemen. They say they're very worried about their diplomats and other foreigners there in the capital.
BLITZER: And so now the capital of Yemen, that remains closed?
JAMJOOM: It does remain closed. This is one of the longest closures that it has seen yet, and it really goes to show just how concerned they are about the threat level toward the embassy.
BLITZER: All right. You'll stay on top of it for us. Mohammed, thanks very much.
This note to our viewers, whether you lived through it or learned about it, one of the most terrifying moments in U.S. history was when the world sat on the brink of nuclear war. The CNN original series "The Sixties" takes a look at the Cold War that had every American on edge. Here's a preview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Early on in the '60s, you had this backdrop of tension and capitalism versus communism, and it was palpable fear in the United States and in the Soviet Union that the two sides were going to get into a nuclear war.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The temper (ph) of the world is crisis. The architect of the crisis, Nikita Khrushchev. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As they headed the Soviet Union, Khrushchev was very ideological. He believed that the future belonged to communism. He said America needs to be contained, and the only way to do it is to create crises all around the American empire.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Don't miss "The Sixties," a CNN original series, this Thursday night, 9 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.
Coming up, we're monitoring a very dangerous weather situation. Take a look at the ominous pictures. These are live pictures coming in from Omaha, Nebraska. It's about to get slammed.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of Omaha, Nebraska. These are live pictures. Pretty ominous pictures right now. A dangerous weather situation approaching some 35 million people potentially in what is being described as a severe weather zone.
Let's get the very latest from meteorologist Chad Myers. He's standing by at the CNN severe weather center.
Chad, tell us what you know. It looks like those clouds are getting darker and the sky's getting darker and darker. A lot of cars out on the highway there.
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, I think it's important to realize it is 4:30 in the almost-summer afternoon there, and the sky looks like that. This is a storm that is putting down baseball-sized hail near Blair and Bennington and probably Irvington right now. I lived about eight miles from where this camera was for about 13 years of my life. I know this area very well. There are a lot of people that are going to be affected by 80 to 90-mile-per-hour winds. And the weather service has already said, you cannot be outside. Your pets, your animals cannot be outside when you have hail this size coming into the town and also wind at about 80 miles per hour as well.
Let me take you to the map and we'll show you what's going on. The storm fired up about an hour ago. Not that toward Norfolk or so. It moved right into Omaha and that's where it is right now moving into the northwestern suburbs of Omaha proper.
Here's Missouri Valley, here's Omaha, Nebraska. This is 680. The interstate is just to the northwest of most of the population of Omaha. Here's Miller. You're about to get it. Elk Horn, here, all of this weather here, almost every area right through here has either golf ball sized hail or baseball-sized hail with it right now.
Let me show you a three-dimensional picture of this cell right now because the hail is coming all the way to the ground. We'll get this bigger for you. And I'm going to rotate this cell.
The storm itself, Wolf, is 51,000 feet tall. Almost 10 miles high. And for the bottom six miles it is full of hail and that hail is hitting the ground now in Omaha and points to the north.
Here is the picture that we're getting from KETV. They keep opening the iris a little bit for us. See this color right there? See all of this green? Guess what that is? That's the hail. It's green because you look at an old Coke bottle. You look at the top of a Coke bottle, it's green. It's the refraction and the reflection of the Coke bottle making the top of that bottle green. The glass has a little bit of coloring, too.
But the green here and here and here all indicates tremendous amounts of hail, following from the sky, with the storm. This is looking to the northwest, it's about 72nd and center. I guess it's right about there. This is the old Blue Cross-Blue Shield building right there.
Here's Omaha, you're just about to get it. If you're in Omaha proper, you need to take cover just as though this was a tornado heading to your city. It's that big of a deal. I know it's a severe thunderstorm warning but this is the most big severe thunderstorm I have seen, the biggest severe storm I have seen moving into a city in a very long time -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So how potentially dangerous is this, especially for those folks who are on the highway there in their cars? Because it's getting darker and darker, more ominous toward that sky over there. We're seeing a flash. What is that? Lightning?
MYERS: That's lightning in the sky. Sure. We would expect to see lightning ground flashes if there was a tornado on the ground. This storm is not really rotating. This storm is not going to put down a tornado but the damage will be much more widespread. These baseball-size hailstones will go through the roof of your car, certainly through the windshield and the back window of your car. Dent the entire thing where you almost can't tell what type of car it is.
So you need to be out of your car in a building. If you're listening to me on Sirius, get out of that car, drive into a mall, drive into a strip mall and get inside somehow. Even the roof will get damage of your home as this baseball-sized hail falling at about 100 miles per hour will be hitting the tops of those roofs, certainly damaging the shingles. But some of those thinner roofs or even the mobile home roof, which is really only just made of metal, those roofs could be compromised and thus some of those stones could go right through the roofs of some of those homes.
Wolf, it is a very dangerous situation for Omaha, for Irvington, for the Mormon Bridge area over there. Eventually over to Council Bluffs. This is going to go right through the Eppley Airfield. This Eppley Airfield which is the Omaha Airport, will get pounded. We hope that there aren't still planes on the ground and they're all out of the way because a hailstone the size of a baseball and the aluminum skin of an airplane do not go together very well. Those planes will be demolished -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're not talking about a rural area. This is a city, Omaha, Nebraska, a major city out there. We're looking at live pictures coming in from downtown and you can see a lot of cars on the road over there. So this is -- this is potentially very dangerous situation especially as the winds pick up. How fast are those winds likely to get?
MYERS: We've already have wind speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour. We've had 2.75 inch hailstones falling from the sky here just to the northwest of the city. The storm is coming from the northwest to the southeast into the city proper. So it's going to go across 680, going to go across the old area where Sunset Speedway used to be, across into West Roads, and then down south towards Crossroads. Those were all malls in the Omaha area.
All of those areas are going to be hit by this tremendous hail event. There will be so many demolished cars but I'm really not so worried about the cars, I'm worried about the people in them because if you're still driving in those cars and the hail starts to hit, the glass will break. The windshield will shatter, even though it's obviously a panel, a plate, a glass, and then a film and a glass, it's that tempered glass and really good glass in a case, it will still shatter in your car.
You need to be out of your car before that baseball-sized hailstone hits it because there will be glass shards inside of those cars -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's now, Chad, 4:35 p.m. local time, Central Time, in Omaha, Nebraska. And look at how dark it is over there.
You know what, Chad, hold on a second. I want to listen to what our affiliate of KETV, the reporters there, are saying.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Move at a very slow pace from south to north to meet up with the storm system that's moving northwest. So that's not usually a good sign. But the storm doesn't seem to be moving too fast over downtown right now. You heard those sirens that you talked about, about three or four minutes ago. They have since dissipated and are gone now but mostly what we're seeing just directly to our north here from 27th and Dodge -- 27th and Douglas, rather, is just that green and a lot of lightning.
We're not getting any rain here and we don't feel any wind or at least not any wind that would seem to be damaging at this point but that looked like a pretty massive lightning strike there just over I- 480 to the north, probably about Hamilton Street. That's the other thing that's going on from our vantage point. A lot of people just rushing to get home right now. We're seeing more traffic than we normally see heading east right now on Douglas and a huge backup on I- 480 southbound.
It looks like some people may be trying to go east there at the split just past Alegent Creighton Medical Center. And now the wind is picking up. That has just happened. Right now we're starting to feel that wind, we're seeing trees move down here. You might be able to even hear it in the microphone.
Again, no rain just yet. A lot of lightning and that wind is starting to pick up as the storm moves in here into the downtown Omaha area. So we'll stay on top of this and see exactly what comes but if you're in this area you should take shelter right now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. Let's get back to Chad.
Chad, this is a precursor to what? What do we anticipate, given the indications that you're getting?
MYERS: Well, you can see the lightning now just on the screen. And it would be amazing to continue to watch this storm as it moves right over the camera, because it will. It's moving at about 20 or 30 miles per hour coming in -- I now think that I'm losing the visibility on the edge of the camera to -- and that means the rain shield, the pale shield is right there getting closer and closer to us, probably only three or four miles from the camera but what really concerns me is all of the cars you see on the road.
I'm looking at cars. They are not moving at all. They are completely stopped. I'm assuming that this is 72nd and Center. This is the old medical center, Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Could have been there. (INAUDIBLE) over to the right here. A little bit many, many years ago. But look at all these cars, all those headlights not even moving and this green, the green is showing up again on the screen right through here. That's the hail falling from the sky and 2.75-inch hail.
We do have a tornado warning in Nebraska but, trust me, because I've driven it many, many times, it's a big state. The tornado warning is way out west right now but this may not be the last storm for Omaha tonight. There will certainly be weather for Lincoln, there will be certainly weather for Beatrice back out toward Grand Island and North Platte, even into the Valentine and Cherry County. Big storms out there now and they are all moving to the east.
This is something we talked about. It's turning into a storm for tonight called a derecho. The derecho is a big wide of storms, a Meso Scale complex of storms that charges ahead very quickly and pushes out a tremendous amount of wind. We had a derecho a couple of years ago that even made its way all the way to Washington, D.C., and did damage. And so this storm will continue to blow through the area across Council Bluffs into Iowa proper and make wind for hundreds of miles, wind damage, hundreds of miles long, 70, 80-mile-per-hour winds if you were in Columbus, if you were in Kentucky with that storm, even West Virginia.
Trees were falling down. This derecho lasted for almost 24 hours a couple of years ago. I suspect this will be a similar type event coming up tonight as these storms, what we call cluster. As they cluster together, they all act as one and they all move to the east. Slightly to the southeast as one knocking down things for hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles -- Wolf. BLITZER: I remember when that derecho hit the Washington, D.C., area a few years ago. It was back in 2012. It was awful. It seemed to never end. It can go on for quite a while.
Chad, I want you to stand by. We'll take a quick break and resume our special coverage right after this.
BLITZER: Once again we're following the breaking news, a tornado reported on the ground right now in central Nebraska, 35 million people potentially in what is now being described as a severe weather zone.
Let's get back to our senior meteorologist Chad Myers. He's standing by at the CNN Severe Weather Center. He's got the breaking details.
These are our pictures coming in from our affiliate KETV in Omaha. This is a severe thunderstorm. You're also pointing out it could be a derecho. Explain to our viewers what that is -- Chad.
MYERS: I think what's important to see here is that when we say severe thunderstorm warning and we mean it because this looks like a tornado and it is not. This is an 80-mile-per-hour straight line wind event that is just -- it has debris in the sky. The trees are falling apart. The hail is falling from the sky. There will be places north of Omaha, probably Irvington up towards the Mormon Bridge that will have so much hail on the ground they will have to get the snowplows out to move it -- Wolf.
This is the kind of storm we're seeing right now. And so a tornadic storm will spin around and will cause tornado damage. We've covered that a lot. But what we don't always understand is when a storm just runs in a straight line for a very long time it can act like a bulldozer to the air in front of it and the air in front of it gets pushed forward and this is what we're seeing. This is the air getting pushed forward. The leaves falling from the sky. It's hard to see whether this hail coming down but it's a likelihood that there is hail.
We've already had that 2.75 inch hail being reported just north of Omaha and this storm is moving into the city proper right now. It is over metro Omaha. Missing Millard a little bit but right to District 66 and moving to the southeast eventually over toward the southeast, toward the Henry Doorly Zoo and across the bridge into Council Bluffs.
A major area. I know we think of it as Omaha and Iowa and all that, an unpopulated but I will tell you that there are more than a million people getting pounded with this hail right now. Cars, people, pets being injured at this point in time, obviously cars getting damaged. But this is a major event even though it's not a tornado on the ground, a lot of damage occurring right now in the Omaha, Nebraska area.
BLITZER: Yes. These are live pictures coming in courtesy of our affiliate KETV.
MYERS: Right. That's correct.
BLITZER: This is from Council Bluffs, Iowa, where you could see -- you could see what's going on over there. It's very, very ominous.
Tell us about this derecho. What exactly is it?
MYERS: It's when all the storms begin to line up. When I went to school it's used to be called a Meso Scale convective complex. Now they changed the names a little bit because I have been in school -- haven't been to school in 25 years, but what it is, it's a bunch of storms that will cluster together. And not like a hurricane that will cluster together but they will interact with each other. The wind from one storm will create another storm ahead of it.
And then the two will collide and will make another storm just ahead of it and it will charge ahead in a large line almost again a big bulldozer that pushes air ahead of it, pushes the wind ahead of it, and this is what's set up now for parts of Iowa, into Missouri, St. Louis, you cannot let your guard down tonight. You should have everything inside, including your pets, tonight in St. Louis because this could come.
It may take a very long time, but maybe even five or six hours but it could get there all the way to St. Louis and across into Columbia and Jefferson City. It's that big line of weather, storm here, storm here, storm here, that will charge ahead as a big snowplow as a big dozer.
I could tell from that picture we just had that that ground was covered in hail. That ground was absolutely white from that picture that we just had before the meteorologist showed up there on that camera.
Let me show you what else I can find here for you. Here's the severe thunderstorm warnings. It's Douglas, Harrison, Pottawattamie County, Pottawattamie is in Iowa, but the storm right through here in Omaha proper moving across the river itself.
Here's Irvington, here's Bennington up here. Millard would be back here. Ralston, you're still to the south of the storm, but is sliding your way, so Ralston, maybe toward Papillion, and then eventually all the way down, this is the I-80 Corridor coming across here. This would be Bluff's Run, the racetrack across there, and through Omaha. There is the storm. It moved so very quickly.
The storm is moving at 60 and pushing wind ahead of it. When that happens, you get that tremendous amount of surge of wind and with the storm, obviously, the hail is coming down as well. There probably will be areas that lost not only all of the windows in the house, at least on one side, but all of the siding will get knocked off as well -- Wolf.
BLITZER: This is Council Bluffs, these are live pictures coming in courtesy of our affiliate KETV. (CROSSTALK)
MYERS: And that's still live?
BLITZER: Yes. It's about 10 or 12 miles outside of Omaha.
BLITZER: Omaha is a population of almost 500,000 proper but if you add up the suburban areas, the areas around there, as you say, that's close to a million people potentially impacted by this severe weather and, as we say, there's a tornado right now on the ground in central Nebraska.
We're going to speak with one of the storm chasers right in the middle of all of this. We'll take a quick break, Chad. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Following breaking news out of Nebraska right now. These pictures just came in to CNN. A tornado reported on the ground right now in central Nebraska. What all the states and all the people are put together, potentially 35 million people could be in the severe weather zone right now.
Our meteorologist Chad Myers is standing by with more. These are images, these are not live pictures, but they just came in a little while ago right outside of Omaha, a city of nearly half a million people, and Council Bluffs. This is, what, 10 or 15 miles outside of Omaha. You can see what's going on over there -- Chad.
MYERS: Yes, Council Bluffs, right over the river, it's the sister city to Omaha itself. We were just trying to get ahold of the people at Eppley Airfield, the major Omaha International Airport, and they said that they couldn't talk right now. Hail was so large that they were going to try to get back to us. We're going to try to get them on the phone because right now the hail core is right over Carter Lake, right over into Council Bluffs and also into that Eppley Airfield.
What you see, the leaves coming down, although that looks like a tornado blowing it around, those leaves are being knocked off the trees by the hail hitting the tree limbs, hitting the leaves, and the leaves just start to fly and fly around. This area will be -- at least some of it will be diluted of its vegetation. The trees will be stripped. Anywhere from about the Mormon Bridge westward all the way towards Irvington, this is where most of the hail fell.
But right now the biggest hail core has just shifted, this line right there, the Omaha, Council Bluffs line, into Iowa, into Council Bluffs, up and along I-80. A lot of traffic along I-80, I-29, was clearly damaged by this hail. We hope that there were no fatalities from this, because this storm, although not a tornado, certainly as dangerous and as damaging as any that I've seen. BLITZER: These people, a lot of people are stuck on the highways right now. They've got to get out of their cars, they've got to go inside to avert the damages. These are live pictures coming in from our affiliate KETV in Omaha right now.
We'll stay on top of this story, more of breaking news right after this.