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Tornados Devastate Parts of Alabama; Interview with Lee County Coroner Bill Harris; Winter Storms Hit Boston and Northeast. Aired 8- 8:30a ET

Aired March 8, 2018 - 8:00   ET

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


[08:00:00]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAMEROTA: And good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Monday, March 4th, 8:00 in the east. And we do begin with that breaking news because there's been these catastrophic tornadoes that have torn through central Alabama. At least 23 people are dead at this hour, dozens more are injured. And, of course, that death toll is expected to rise as search crews can go back out.

Here's a look at the devastation in just Lee County, entire neighborhoods reduced to splinters here. Take a look at this cell phone tower that is now lying across the street. It buckled in the storm's wrath blocking U.S. 280. We are expecting to get a live briefing from officials in Alabama very soon. The state of Georgia was also hit overnight by tornadoes.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Obviously we're watching the aftermath of the standards. That's our primary focus. But it is notable that the same weather system at this moment is dumping snow in the northeast. We have a look at Boston at this moment. Whiteout in Boston. Some spots around Massachusetts have seen well over a foot of snow already. And it's not done just yet. Some 80 million people are under winter weather alerts this morning. Public schools in New York City, Connecticut, and Boston and throughout the region closed today. We want to begin our coverage with CNN's Kaylee Hartung. She, again, the tornado aftermath is our focus this morning. She has the breaking details from Alabama. Kaylee?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, just after the sun came up this morning, police led us through their barricade in Lee County on Highway 51 so that we could get a look at this devastation for ourselves, and I am absolutely awestruck. If you see these cinderblocks behind me. Yesterday, these were the foundation for a manufactured home. Where that home is now, your guess is as good as mine. As you can see, we are surrounded by the remnants of homes. These broken trees behind me, the yellow in them, insulation from the walls that once made up the homes in this neighborhood. If you can hear the beeping behind me, smoke detectors no longer inside homes that were standing just yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HARTUNG: A series of deadly tornadoes ripping through Alabama and Georgia, leveling homes and causing catastrophic damage across both states.

JAY JONES, LEE COUNTY SHERIFF: Houses completely destroyed. Homes just basically just slabs left where once stood a home.

HARTUNG: The tornadoes are the deadliest in years with authorities telling reporters they expect the death toll to rise. The path of destruction tearing through Lee County, Alabama. Officials say one tornado appears to have traveled for several miles on the ground in one community, destroying nearly everything in a half mile wide path, and sending dozens of people to the hospital with very serious injuries.

JEREMY DANIEL NORTON, ALABAMA RESIDENT: I wouldn't wish this on anybody. This just came on so quick and changed so many lives that it's really sickening to watch.

HARTUNG: Neighborhood after neighborhood, in this Georgia town, leveled. Roofs torn off the tops of houses, trees uprooted and blocking streets, cellphone towers knocked down.

NORTON: This whole area right here is pretty much just gone. Looking out over this way, which is mostly trees, it just looks like toothpicks broke just all through there.

HARTUNG: This porch, the only thing still standing from this home.

JONES; Contents of one residence we know for a fact was located over 1,000 yards away. So we've got a wide, very wide storm track that went through the area.

HARTUNG: Families gathering anything they could find in the rubble to take with them to safety.

JONES: These families have lost everything they have.

HARTUNG: In the midst of the chaos, some families reuniting with their pets.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that your baby?

HARTUNG: And their loved ones.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, that's a sweet reunion, isn't it, right there. Granny is OK.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARTUNG: An hour from now, search and rescue operations will resume. Sheriffs in Lee County saying they believe there to be about a one square mile area of significant damage, but that area could be much greater. I'm told here down Lee Road, 38, there are areas as far as three miles back that authorities have not yet been able to search, and I'm told it looks very similar to this. Alisyn? CAMEROTA: Oh, no. Let's hope they can get there very soon this

morning. Kaylee, thank you for that report.

One of the worst places of the damage, of course, has destroyed mobile homes in eastern Alabama. And CNN's Victor Blackwell is live in Lee County with a closer look at that scene. Victor?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So Alisyn, Kaylee is on Lee 38, I'm on Lee 100, a couple of miles away. And let's look at what we're seeing there. This is one of the mobile homes that was just tossed over in the storm. You can see now this -- the carpet hanging from the floor that's now upright.

[08:05:01] The linoleum here, some of the furniture tossed over inside. And all the contents, if we could zoom in back here, dumping out of the top. Some of the furniture, some of the insulation, the roof is actually across the street here. And as the sun came up, when we first came here at about 2:00 or 3:00 this morning, we couldn't see much of the damage, but back here you can see a truck that's been moved, and it's under a couple of trees back here. More of the damage from these storms.

We can also tell you what we've seen as the sun has come up. More traffic. People coming through to see what's left, what's damaged in this community. We see that the road has been cleared, and that has taken a lot of work because there have been so many trees down. But crews have been out since the storm hit in the 3:00 p.m. eastern hour yesterday and in through as soon as -- as late as they could without power here to clear the roads so that those first responders could come.

But there's insulation, as Kaylee said, where she was in the trees. This is the metal roof of this mobile home thrown against trees here. A lot of damage here. We know from the National Weather Service that they say that there is enough damage based on what they've seen so far that they expect that this was an EF-3, at least one of the tornadoes, meaning the winds with 136 miles per hour. They will be trying to see if the winds are even stronger. We're waiting just minutes from an update from officials here in Lee County. Back to you, John.

BERMAN: Victor Blackwell for us on the ground there in Lee County. Joining us now is Bill Harris, who is the Lee County coroner. Mr. Harris, thank you so much for being with us this morning. We had a chance to speak to both the sheriff and someone from Emergency Management before, and they were waiting to hear from you to find out if the official death count, which we were told was 23, has changed now that the light has come up. Is there an adjustment?

BILL HARRIS, LEE COUNTY CORONER: As of about 6:00 a.m., it has not changed. It's still at 23. I understand there are still two people with critical injuries in the intensive care unit of our local hospital. We'll put troops on the ground here shortly in about an hour, and I expect that we will locate some more decedents.

BERMAN: Do you believe there are people trapped inside any of this rubble strewn about the county? HARRIS: That very well could be. It just totally destroyed the homes

in this area. So I'm hoping we're going to find some rescue and not recovery.

BERMAN: Do you have any number for those missing right now?

HARRIS: I know I have talked to three families that were looking for six people as of midnight last night they haven't been able to locate. I heard a number this morning, but I can't confirm it. We could have as many as 20 that may not be accounted for right now, but that doesn't -- they could have gone to somebody's house and just haven't checked in with family members yet.

BERMAN: Often it's hard to get to touch with people in the hours immediately after these storms because communication systems go down, so it doesn't necessarily mean that the worst has happened. It's just they're unaccounted for at this time. The sheriff told my colleague Alisyn Camerota that there are children, at least one child, among those who have been killed. Is that the case?

HARRIS: That is true. The ages ranged from under 10 to in the 70s and 80s.

BERMAN: And I also understand that some of the worst damage in terms of deaths and casualties happened in one confined area, one mile or two square-mile area. Are the victims, are they related?

HARRIS: A lot of them are just very good neighbors. We did have -- we've had several families that have probably just lost everybody in that whole family. We'll start the identification process on the decedents that we have recovered so far about 8:00, and then as they bring in more, then we'll go through that process and hopefully get everybody back to their respective families and funeral homes this afternoon.

BERMAN: I can't imagine you had a chance to sleep very much. And now that the sun has come up behind you, we are getting a sense of just how much damage was done. What's the biggest challenge you face this morning?

HARRIS: Right now my job is to take care of these families, asking everybody to just pray for them. They've lost more than their homes here. Some of them have just lost entire families. We're going to do everything we can to ease them through that pain and get their respective loved ones back to where they need to go.

BERMAN: What do you need from us? What do you need from the community right now?

HARRIS: Just pray for these folks. They've lost everything. It's very devastating. It's probably the worst disaster that I've been involved with in my county here. I've been to several others around the state and worked fatalities, but for Lee County, I've been in the coroner's office over 30 years, and this is the worst mass casualty incident that we've had here that I can remember. [08:10:02] BERMAN: Over 30 years, it's the worst you've seen. Did

you have warning? Did you have enough warning these storms were coming?

HARRIS: Yes, there were actual warnings out, and then it just seemed like the flip of a light switch, it was on top of them before they knew what was happening, but there were warnings issued.

BERMAN: How close were you to the storms and tornadoes when they passed through?

HARRIS: About a mile. I had left the house and when I heard that there were some folks injured. As a retired paramedic, I came down this way to see if I could actually help some of them get some loaded in the ambulances and then the fatalities started piling up, and I had to move on to this job now.

BERMAN: It is your job. You told me that you have two people in critical condition at this point. How many other injuries are you dealing with?

HARRIS: I've been told that they transported at least 40 to our local hospital and probably as many as 16 to 22 outside hospitals from around Opelika, but that's just a number that I was given. I don't know the condition of any of those.

BERMAN: All right, Bill Harris, Lee County Coroner, again, thank you for all the work you've been doing, all evening, all night, all morning long. We really do wish you and your community the best. And let us know if there's anything we can do for you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: It's very scary to think of how many people are still missing, and we've been told, obviously, that they'll be using those drones. That will help because the places are very hard to get into. But it's a really sad and nerve-racking morning there.

BERMAN: Just some of the numbers. Again, 23 killed, that number has not gone up, but two people in critical condition. There is concern because there are some 20 people, he suggested, still missing, but we don't know if those are just unaccounted for or people that could still be trapped in the rubble. And 30 years he's been on the job and he tells us he's never seen anything like this.

CAMEROTA: That's what the sheriff said to us as well. So that storm system that spawned those deadly tornadoes is also hammering the northeast now with snow. More than 80 million people from the Midwest to the northeast are under winter storm alerts right now. So CNN's Alison Kosik is out in the thick of it in Boston. What's the situation at this hour, Alison?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Don't be deceived. This is the snow that's been plowed, but I've been playing in the snow because this is the fun stuff. This is the sticky snow that you can make snowballs with and, of course, build a snowman with. But it's also the kind of snow that can create headaches, because you have to shovel it. It's really heavy. It's also created quite a few power outages. Thousands of people in Massachusetts are without power.

It can also create huge headaches on the roads, although these roads have been plowed nicely. They are still very slick because you have that wet snow on the streets. Boston, though, getting up, getting ready for the morning commute. The sidewalks are doing pretty well here. The plows have been through. This will wind up being Boston's biggest snowstorm of the season. You know total snowfall for the entire season only totaling about 15.9 inches. Just today it's expected to be anywhere from I'd say nine inches to 12 inches. So Boston certainly getting a late feel of that winter blast, even in March. Now, things are expected to begin tapering off as they are right now. The snow is slowing down. It's expected to warm up quite a bit. Temperatures expected to get over 40 degrees. Get ready for the big melt. And, John, this one is for you.

BERMAN: I appreciate that, some Boston snow in my face. It's going to warm up. I don't think it's going to stay warm. Let's go to CNN meteorologist Chad Myers who has the forecast. Hey, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Maybe for 15 minutes, then all of a sudden by tonight, John, it's down to 12, so anything that's slush will be an ice chunk by morning.

The snow just about done now for Alison in Boston and also even into New England. It's all part of the same storm system that did make the tornadoes yesterday. But Burrillville, the new winner in Rhode Island, 17 inches. Foxboro, you added three inches in the past couple of hours, up to 15 inches of snow with this storm.

So let's go to the warm side. Here's where the storm was yesterday down across the southeast, Gulf of Mexico moisture in the air, cold air trying to push that away. At this point in time, there's Columbus, Georgia. Here's Lee County right there in Alabama. And that's when the tornado was actually on the ground.

Now I'm going to move you ahead an hour and I'm going to show you all of these other supercells. A tornado near Warner Robins. A tornado near Cairo, a tornado here. Another tornado near Albany. All on the ground at the same time.

For a time yesterday, there were 10 tornado warnings for 10 separate storms all in either Georgia or Alabama, not related to each other, but all just those supercell tornadoes that we talk about, at least 36. One of the storms may have been on the ground for 65 miles. Now comes the cold air in behind it. The high today in New York City, 38. Yes, Boston says 42, but forget about it, as they would say in New Jersey because by tonight, Boston is 18.

I just - I didn't put the accent in there, but you understand what I'm talking about.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, ANCHOR, CNN: We've got it. No, I speak New Jersey. I heard that. Chad, thank you very much for keeping an eye on all of that. We do want to give some breaking news for you right now. Four Americans and a local pilot have been killed in a helicopter crash in Northern Kenya. An initial report says the crash happened as two helicopters took off after a visit to a safari camp. The U.S. Embassy has identified three of the four Americans killed as Andrews Burke, Brandon Stapper, and Kyle Forti, Kenyan police say security teams are at the scene of the crash, but they say do not yet know what caused this. Obviously, we'll follow this story for you.

JOHN BERMAN, ANCHOR, CNN: All right, the Trump administration trying to answer for President Trump, siding with Kim Jong-un's version of the death of Otto Warmbier, but his National Security adviser had trouble explaining it. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: National Security adviser, John Bolton playing defense after President Trump sided with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un over the death of American, Otto Warmbier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, ANCHOR, CNN: Do you take Kim Jong-un at his word?

JOHN BOLTON, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The President takes him at his word. That's what he makes.

TAPPER: I know he does, but what about you?

BOLTON: My opinion doesn't matter. My opinion is that I am the National Security --

TAPPER: But you are the National Security adviser of the President, and your opinion matters quite a bit.

BOLTON: I am not the National Security decision maker. That's his view.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Joining us now to talk about this and more is Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski.

[08:20:10]

CAMEROTA: He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and previously served as the State Department's top diplomat on human rights under President Obama. Congressman, thank you so much for being here.

TOM MALINOWSKI, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE, NEW JERSEY, DEMOCRAT: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: What did you think when you heard the National Security adviser say that his decision -- I mean, before we get to what the President has said and before we get to Otto Warmbier, his decision making and his opinions don't matter?

MALINOWSKI: Well, of course his opinions matter and I think he's indicating that he disagrees with the President. What the President said was indefensible and it's very hard I guess, for John Bolton to defend it.

CAMEROTA: So let's remind people of what the President said when he explained that he is siding with Kim Jong-un's version of events over the Warmbier family. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He felt badly about it. I did speak to him. He felt very badly, but he knew the case very well, but he knew it later.

He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: He believes Kim Jong-un. What went through your head when you heard that?

MALINOWSKI: Well, it's disgraceful, number one, after what happened to Otto, to an American citizen who was tortured and mistreated in North Korea. But also just think about it from a pragmatic perspective. We're trying to disarm North Korea. You're not going to do that by believing blindly everything that Kim Jong-un tells you.

If you believe Kim Jong-un on Otto Warmbier, you're going to believe him on nuclear weapons and missiles as well.

CAMEROTA: And in fact, the President has. I mean, the President has believed him over intelligence that suggests that there's all sorts of activity still happening in their nuclear realm.

MALINOWSKI: There does seem to be a pattern here in which the President believes what he is told by powerful people who are accused of moral transgressions, whether it's Putin, whether it's Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, now Kim Jong-un. It's hard to fathom, but you know what? The Congress of the United States has a view about this.

CAMEROTA: Let's talk about that. So you felt compelled to create a resolution saying what? That America stands with the Warmbier family?

MALINOWSKI: That America stands for truth, that we stand for American citizens, and that we do not stand for North Korea or any other country in the world mistreating, causing the death of an American citizen.

CAMEROTA: Is this a by partisan solution?

MALINOWSKI: I believe it will be, yes.

CAMEROTA: Who do you think will be with you on that?

MALINOWSKI: Well, we'll have to see. It's always to be tested, but Kevin McCarthy, the Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, I think issued a very appropriate and clear statement that, of course, he thinks Kim Jong-un is responsible.

We're not criticizing President Trump in this resolution, by the way. All we are doing is saying we, the United States Congress hold Kim Jong-un responsible.

CAMEROTA: And what was the moment that you felt it was going to be necessary for the Congress to issue a resolution like that?

MALINOWSKI: As soon as I heard the President speak, I think on a lot of issues, it is important that the Congress of the United States be an alternative voice for America to the world right now.

CAMEROTA: And then what? I mean, you know, again, as you've pointed out, this isn't the first time the President has done this. He's also sided with Vladimir Putin over his own top intelligence agents. He's sided with, as you say, he's sided with MBS over the evidence, and so where does this get you?

MALINOWSKI: It's very important to say to the world that the United States hasn't gone completely mad. That Republicans and Democrats were divided on so many things right now, but we are not divided on the truth. We are not divided on protecting our country. We're not divided on defending our values in the world.

CAMEROTA: What did you think about what happened in North Korea and the fact that the president came back empty handed and that what he imagined, the relationship or chemistry that he felt he had with Kim Jong-un that he thought was going to somehow move the needle did not?

MALINOWSKI: I actually thought it was the best of all possible bad outcomes because I could not see the possibility of a deal that did not involve concessions that we should not be making to North Korea.

So I'm glad the President walked away. It was the right decision. I would not have had the Summit if I were advising him, but I'm glad that we did not make concessions in terms of selling out the South Koreans or lifting sanctions in exchange for virtually nothing from North Korea.

CAMEROTA: In terms of what's happening in Saudi Arabia, as you know, there's a family of a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen who is being held in Saudi Arabia right now whose family believes that he has been tortured, and so given the relationship that President Trump has with Mohammed Bin Salman and that he has believed him in the past, where does that leave this family?

MALINOWSKI: So they've been waiting for over a year for their dad to come home. He's an American citizen. Kids are American citizens. He has not been charged with any crime. So there's no judicial process here.

[08:25:02]

MALINOWSKI: There have been quiet efforts to release him now for about a year which have resulted in nothing and I have to say, it's mystifying to me that Saudi Arabia, given the pressure that it's under, given the criticism, righteous, rightful criticism over what they did to Jamal Khashoggi that they are doing this now.

CAMEROTA: And does that tell you they feel they can do this with impunity?

MALINOWSKI: Well, I don't think they can do this with impunity because again, that there is now a majority in the United States Congress to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia which would have been unthinkable a year or two ago.

And so, this isn't just wrong. It is profoundly stupid that they are holding this man.

CAMEROTA: What's going to happen next?

MALINOWSKI: Well, this is now public and so we're going to step up the pressure to release him. His family is also in Saudi Arabia. They won't allow them the right to leave the country. They have a very short amount of time, I think, to resolve this so that it does not become yet another issue in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

CAMEROTA: Awesome. Tom Malinowski, thank you very much for being here with us on "New Day."

MALINOWSKI: Thank you so much.

CAMEROTA: John?

BERMAN: All right, House Democrats want documents and information from the President's son, Donald Trump, Jr., so what are they after, and how will the President respond? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right, new this morning, the House Judiciary Committee is going to request documents today from more than 60 people connected to the Trump administration, the President's family, including his eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr. and also the Trump organization. This comes as House Democrats are clearly expanding their investigations of the President.

[08:30:08]