Skip to main content


Return to Transcripts main page


Jackson Place Center Evacuated; Florida Hit By Storms

Aired February 2, 2007 - 10:00   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. I'm Heidi Collins.
TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Tony Harris. Spend a second hour in the NEWSROOM with us this morning and stay informed. Here's what's on the rundown.

The destruction absolutely breathtaking. Three central Florida communities hit fast, hit hard by likely tornadoes this morning.

COLLINS: Lives and homes lost in an instant. We expect to hear from Florida's governor this hour. Breaking news on Friday, February 2nd. You are in the NEWSROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

COLLINS: Multiple fatalities, massive destruction and the danger is not over. Breaking news out of Florida, where severe storms and suspected tornadoes hit with devastating fury early this morning. The Associated Press says emergency officials report at least 14 people killed. In fact, we are just now confirming here at CNN, once again, 14 people across central Florida has been killed.

HARRIS: Heidi, storms ripped through the central part of the state and in the middle of the night. Authorities in Lake County say at least two people were killed. Two mobile home parks in the town of Lady Lake were hit. Other homes were also heavily damaged or destroyed.

COLLINS: And this. A new tornado warning now in effect for Brevard County in east central Florida for another 15 minutes or so. Chad Myers, of course, on top of that for us. Authorities also in Volusia and Sumter Counties are reporting extensive damage there. Search and rescue teams in the area are looking for people possibly trapped in all of that debris. One woman described what happened as the storm ripped the roof off of her home.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE, STORM SURVIVOR: We heard the train. We tried to make it to our walk-in closet. I did, my husband didn't. He ended up on the floor beside the bed and the closet door caved in on me and then the roof was gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is your husband okay?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Her ceiling's falling. We shouldn't probably be standing here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So your house is?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That one. Demolished.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Demolished. Nothing. Her house is going to be condemned because the roof lifted up. As you can see, her living room curtains are hanging out there. And so the whole place is going to be condemned.


HARRIS: Across central Florida, trees and power lines down, homes have been reduced to rubble. We are on top of this breaking story and, of course, we will be bringing you the latest information as it comes in to the NEWSROOM.

Just another reminder, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and emergency officials are expected to hold a news briefing. That's at the bottom of the hour, 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time. And, of course, we will carry that for you live.

COLLINS: And quickly want to go straight down to T.J. Holmes. He is standing by in the newsroom on a completely unrelated story, but we've got to get it to you, coming to us out of Washington, D.C. A major evacuation.

Is this at the white house, T.J.?

T.J. HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. It's close to the White House. This is the Jackson Place Conference Center. This is about a block away from the White House.

This is a center, of course, where the media has been relocated. The main pressroom is being renovated as we heard, it was some months back, expect to relocate the media for some time. Well, the room, the place they're using now is the Jackson Place Center.

Well this place is now where it has been evacuated for the time being. They are checking out a suspicious item that was found there. Actually happened, a dog, assuming a sniffing dog, checked out something, hit on an item near this building. That item now, we're not exactly sure what type of packaging it might have been, any kind of a bag or just a funny looking item of whatever time. But it was suspicious. They decided they needed to check it out and right now that building has been evacuated.

Again, we're saying this is not far from the White House. Just a block away. However, the White House right now is not being affected by this. Again, the White House is not being affected, not being evacuated.

However, the Jackson Place Conference Center, again, it is the new home or temporary home, I should say, for the White House press corp while the main pressroom is being renovated. This is where they've been for some months now, the new press corp. So we're keeping an eye on this. Trying to figure out what that suspicious item was.

But, again, key to note that the White House is not affected but we're keeping an eye on what's happening at this temporary pressroom.


COLLINS: All right, T.J. Holmes. And I know you'll stay on top of it for us. Thanks so much.

COLLINS: And right now let's get to Chad Myers for the very latest on this storm and a tornado possibly on the ground.

Chad, what do you have for us?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, it was reported on the ground by the public about 20 minutes ago, but now it's getting to a very populated area and I want you to know about it. Very close to Sebastian, or for that matter, Roseland. A small storm, but it is still rotating and it has moved across I-95 now. And the rotation right here between Brevard County, just almost moving into southern Brevard County. Roseland right there. And there you see Sebastian. Take cover if you're in that area, at least for now until this goes by. It will be past you in 15 minutes.

Guys, back to you.

HARRIS: Chad, appreciate it. Thank you.

Right now, let's continue our coverage of the story in Florida. Kim Miller is on the line with this. And Kim is with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Kim, we understand -- well, you have to be up to your neck in work this morning. Talk to us about the scenes, the multiple scenes, the multiple locations, all the work that is going on in several counties right now by the Florida Highway Patrol.

KIM MILLER, FLORIDA HIGHWAY PATROL: It's actually a group effort with fire rescue personnel, the sheriff's office and the Highway Patrol. It started for us on the interstate this morning about a quarter till 4:00 as what we suspect a tornado, possibly coming through and blowing over five semis on the interstate near New Smyrna Beach. Likely we had nobody killed. One person in a semi was trapped for about 30 minutes.

Two other people told us that their car was actually lifted up off the ground and then thrown back down. And they were also slightly injured. So we got out lucky. The interstate opened back up completely about 8:00 a.m. And now we're just assisting other agencies in the search and rescue.

HARRIS: Wait a minute, Kim. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You've just described five semi tractor-trailer trucks being blown off the road.

MILLER: And one is disintegrated. We think, you know, something could have disintegrated the trailer portion of that semi because there's nothing left and it didn't happen from the crash.

HARRIS: Now you didn't -- were you there? You didn't see this? You didn't assess the scene or did you?

MILLER: Yes. Yes. Yes. I was at the scene, yes.

HARRIS: All right, Kim, a lot of us have not seen the scene that you're describing here. Paint the picture for us in words. What did you see?

MILLER: We saw tractor trailers littered all over the interstate. On its side we had one semi-with a dual trailer on another semi where a gentleman was pinned. We had a few cars mixed into that. And, like I said, luckily, we were just very thankful that nobody was seriously injured. We had people being able to climb out of that. We did have a several mile backup. And talking to those people that were involved in that, they believe that it was some kind of tornado because they said debris was flying everywhere and that they just didn't know what was going on. They couldn't see anything. And that the wind was blowing them off the road.

HARRIS: You're kidding me. So the drivers of these semis were OK?

MILLER: Right. Yes. We had one semi driver that was injured. He was probably the most severely injured but he was taken to the hospital after he was pulled out by fire rescue. The local evac here took three people to the hospital. So we were really lucky there on I-4 that, obviously, the more serious problems are in the local areas on the local roads.


Kim, is there anything that the Florida Highway Patrol can do to help some of these smaller, local communities, in terms of the efforts that they are now undertaking to clear some of their roads, to maybe sort of cordon off some areas, to block some roads to other traffic in the area?

MILLER: That's exactly what we're doing. We're in a support role with these other agencies that, obviously, emergency workers are overwhelmed right now because it is so widespread. And the Highway Patrol is assisting any way we can with road closures and search and rescue.

HARRIS: You've seen anything like this before? MILLER: During the hurricanes in 2004. But we haven't -- you know, we're not used to tornadoes that much down here, so it does take us by surprise. But, the hurricanes, it was this bad with the road closures and the debris in the roads. Right now I'm looking at power lines all across a local road in Deland. So it is bad, but we'll work together as a team and get this stuff cleared.

HARRIS: Outside of what you're seeing on the roads, have you been able to sort of visit any other communities? Can you kind of paint a picture for us of what you're seeing in terms of the devastation on the ground in some of these communities?

MILLER: Well, Deland is in Volusia County. It's a little historic place and a lot of trees, a lot of old trees, those are littered across the local roadways. Power lines down. Roofs ripped off. We had a local DMV office that was damaged, completely damaged from, you know, what we suspect is a tornado. So not only the buildings (INAUDIBLE) homes, but we also have buildings, shopping centers that are also damaged.

HARRIS: You're, obviously, doing terrific work. But I have to ask you personally, are you OK? Is your home OK? Your loved ones? Everyone all right? Safe?

MILLER: We're all safe and luckily we were able to be able to help the people that are needing our help.

HARRIS: Is it your sense that folks had ample warning? Is there a sense that folks were able to get the information they need in a timely enough fashion to make some kind of plans to escape?

MILLER: We're hearing that. You know, any time this hits in the overnight hours, we have a lot of people that are asleep. So I think it took some people by surprise. And we did have some vehicles on the roadway, so obviously there were situations there. But I think, overall, the public's been very helpful. They've been very patient for the detours. And I think that they were able to get to where they needed to go.

HARRIS: That's great. Kim, we're going to let you get off the phone with us. We know you have a lot on your plate this morning. Kim Miller with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Kim, thank you.

COLLINS: We continued to ask for i-Reports to come in from this area. But before I show you the first one that has come in, just want to remind you, as we look at these devastating pictures, to please, obviously, not put yourself in harm's way as we're learning about other storms in the area as well in order to send those pictures in.

But we do have one to show you that's coming to us from Sarasota, Florida. You may well know that that is the West Coast. Right here we're looking at it now. This is a storm cloud. Just a whole line of storm clouds. Actually, no, because there it is. Our i-Report coming in from Al Marr. The line of storm clouds just moving in. You can see that the trees are, obviously, being blown over as well in this picture. But our first i-Report coming in from Al Marr of Sarasota, Florida.

So, Al, we appreciate that.

And just a reminder, do not put yourself in harm's way in order to send these to us. But we appreciate getting a birds-eye view from the people in the area if it is safe to do so.

Once again, CNN now confirming across central Florida, 14 people have been killed in these storms.

We also want to bring this report to you now from our affiliate in Lady Lake County, WESH. Let's listen in.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The damage in Lady Lake and Lake County is extensive. This used to be the Lady Lake Church of God. It's not even recognizable. It looks like a bomb went off. On the street right next door, a Leesburg police officer woke up to find his cruiser crushed by a tree.

But this is only the material damage. The real tragedy is in some of the mobile home parks across the street. Families who live on Spencer's Loop had their mobile homes destroyed. And we talked to a few residents who said that one young girl, possibly a high school student, was killed while sleeping in her bed when the tornado hit her family's mobile home. We talked to her friends.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to tell Brittany's (ph) family, I'm so sorry. I really am.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was she the 17-year-old (INAUDIBLE) girl?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you know her?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I walked to the bus stop with her in the morning. We waited on the bus every day together. It just makes me sad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry, was your dad OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, my whole family's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But her dad, is OK too?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. I haven't heard anything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The tornado victims came out this morning after the storm hit, wandering around as if they were in a war zone. Not sure what to do. Many of them wanted to describe their experience, what they had seen and heard. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look just like a bomb went off. It used to be a church. It's just amazing. Like I was saying earlier, about 3:25 this morning, I mean there was just thunder, one right after another, lightning and everything. And I just grabbed my kids and my wife and just all the wind and everything coming through. And once it was over, that was it. It was only like maybe 10 seconds and it was over. You know, we got up and got looking around and this is what we found.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel like I woke up out of a dream.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now you heard it. Did you have time to get to a safe room or anything?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. No. All we did was grab the kids and just hovered over them and just road it out.


HARRIS: We want to get you an update on the other breaking news story that we're following this morning. The Jackson Place building, which right now is housing the White House press corps while the normal White House press briefing room is being rehabed, refurbished, has been evacuated this morning. Elaine Quijano is on the line with us.

Elaine, clean that up a little bit for us and tell us what exactly is going on right now?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, I can tell you, Tony, about a half hour or so ago we were sitting in the off-camera briefing, that's known as the gaggle with the Deputy White House Press Secretary Tony Fratto. And just as he was about to answer some questions, he was interrupted by another deputy who essentially said, ladies and gentlemen, the building is being evacuated. A dog has apparently alerted to something in a vehicle perhaps outside. You need to leave. And it was at that point everyone, obviously, was ushered out the back entrance.

Again, Jackson Place, for people who aren't familiar with the White House complex, is actually across the street from the White House itself, in an area that's known as the White House Conference Center. And what they have done is set up temporary offices while, as you noted, the briefing room, as well as some of the other media offices around the West Wing are undergoing some renovations.

And so it is out of that workspace that we have been operating. And it is in that area that the briefing room is set up. That was where the gaggle was taking place at the time that this announcement was made.

Obviously we were ushered out then a back entrance. Not the customary sort of front entrance that we're used to going on. And we're actually on 17th Street. For people who are familiar with Washington and this area, particularly around the White House, we're sort of near the corner of 17th and 8th Streets northwest here, close to the White House complex, but, obviously, not technically inside.

Now I should tell you as well that we are getting notes from colleague as well who were in the sort of the Pebble Beach area they call it, where we do our live shots. Where you see me come to you from the North Lawn. Colleague who were evacuated from there shortly after we were evacuated as well.

Now in the immediate sort of chaos that ensued, I managed to talk to somebody who was in the press office, a low level White House staffer who did not know at that time that there was any kind of evacuation order and was not clear at that point whether or not the West Wing itself was being evacuated. But I can tell you that our colleagues certainly on the North Lawn, were told that they need to move from their position and I believe they're sort of being held sort of nearby. Not quite to where we are here on 17th Street, still sort of on the White House complex, but off of the North Lawn itself.

So we're standing by, trying to find out what other sort of information there is that, really, from our vantage point, we're a little limited. Because what I can tell you, that they've sort of closed off part of the street here. It's difficult to see what exactly might be taking place where the activity originated from.

HARRIS: OK, Elaine, let's do a little quick reset for viewers who are just joining us. This is the Jackson Place Conference Center. And it is, help me here, the temporary quarters for White House correspondents now, correct?

QUIJANO: Yes, exactly. White House correspondents, White House producers of various -- obviously, photojournalists that are here as well.

I'm just getting a note also from the travel pool. That we're being told by the travel pool here that the White House and the old executive office building, that would be the building that you see commonly officials going back and forth from, that they have not been evacuated. Staffers are coming and going normally. And this is according, again, to a travel pool producer. These are the folks who actually, you know, each day are sort of assigned to be with the president himself and cover any kind of travel that he has.

And this is actually another e-mail I'm getting -- apologies, Tony. But now they are saying that we have the all clear, according to the travel pool producer there, headed back into their positions. And I can tell you, it looks like from our vantage point we're being ushered around to the other side of the building, Tony. So there you have it. We're wrapping up.

HARRIS: OK. So let me be clear about this. Have you been given the all clear or no?

QUIJANO: We are being told now -- let me just check with someone here that . . .

HARRIS: And while you do that, I'll just remind everyone that there was a bomb sniffing dog that reacted to something that led to all of this.

OK, Elaine, have you been given the all clear?

QUIJANO: Yes, we're being told now it is all clear. But certainly a moment of drama there again during the off-camera briefing. Something that usually just does not happen. The entire building evacuated. But we are told now that we've all been given the all clear.


HARRIS: OK. We'll let you catch your breath and get back to work. Elaine Quijano at the White House.


HARRIS: See you, Elaine. Thank you.

COLLINS: All right. So as we get the all clear at Washington, D.C., the Jackson Place Conference Center, we do continue to follow our breaking news story across central Florida this morning. CNN now confirming 14 people dead in this massive storm. We will continue to follow it here. And also, make sure you stick around. Just 10 minutes from now, we will be expected to hear from Governor Charlie Crist. Florida Governor Crist will be talking at 10:30 to update us all on the situation in his state.

You are watching CNN, the most trusted name in news. We'll be right back.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was total devastation. I've never seen anything like it in my life. Very scary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How thankful were you to find her OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank God. It was a total miracle. A total miracle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ma'am, how did you get through it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know, really.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very frightening. Very frightening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And your name, ma'am is?



Your last name?



And you are?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Laura Christy (ph), her daughter.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. there was no warning. I mean, my sister heard something fly through her bedroom and she thought mom was gone. She had to go through the trailer and she couldn't find her. And surprisingly enough, mostly everybody's OK. Bit it's just total devastation.


COLLINS: Survivors, mother and daughter, from Deland, Florida. That's coming to us from our affiliate WESH there on the ground.

Also want to remind you, we are waiting, just a couple of minutes away, to hear from Governor Charlie Crist. He's going to be updating the situation there in Florida, obviously. So we'll wait for that and bring it to you live as it happens.

For now we want to get to Bill Vance. He is the Lady Lake town manager.

Bill, if you can hear me, go ahead and tell us what you're dealing with right now this morning.

BILL VANCE, LADY LAKE TOWN MANAGER: Well, currently we're not concluding, but there's ongoing search and rescue efforts to, you know, find as many people as we can and hopefully, you know, find them alive, you know, a state where they're still with us. You know with a devastating event toward the scenes of the tornado in the recent past. And I've never seen anything like it.

I think one of the most important things we're concentrating on right now is securing resources for the people that have been displaced by the hurricane. In the immediate future, obviously, we have medical resources that are necessary, water, food and I understand the Red Cross is coming here this afternoon.

COLLINS: Right. And, Bill, if you could, give us a little bit more information about search and rescue. Are you hearing -- because we are hearing a few reports in and around central Florida that there is some concern that people could be trapped under this massive debris that we keep getting pictures of. Are you hearing of any situations like that?

VANCE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And the regional response, as far as our friends in Lake County and neighboring county, has been fantastic and much appreciated. But it continues.

COLLINS: What exactly is going on right now? How many different agencies do you have out there running around and trying to free people?

VANCE: We've got various municipalities from Lake County out there. I'd say five or six. We've got county personnel. Their support's been fantastic. A couple other counties. I've seen the state police here. You know, the town is utilizing its public works, its parks and rec personnel to assist the police department. And we're just basically going, you know, house to house where, you know, homes used to be.

COLLINS: Yes, that's about all you can do, I imagine, in a case like this.

I want to go ahead and bring in our meteorologist, Chad Myers, with more. And if you'll stay with us, Bill.


CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Hey, Bill, I have a question for you. At about 3:02 in the morning, northern Sumter County got a tornado warning. I'm still searching through piles of records here, looking for one for Lake County. What can you tell me about that?

VANCE: Well, I can tell you the tornado hit in Lake County I think about 3:15 or so, 3:20. That's the best of my knowledge. I actually live in Sumter County, about 10 minutes away from Lady Lake, and the tornado or tornadoes that went through were actually a mile south of my house. So it was . . .

MYERS: Any sirens in your area?

VANCE: I didn't hear any, no.

MYERS: I'm finding here now for Lake County, northern Lake County, coming out of Melbourne. At 3:04 a tornado warning was issued for Lake County. And so that would have given people in the villages and in Lady Lake enough time to prepare, because you're saying it hit a little after that, right?

VANCE: Right. Right. And in the villages, which are located in the northern section of Lady Lake, and that area is the most densely populated in town and the tornado came through the southern portion of town. So, you know, it's less densely populated and that's, you know, obviously, not a great thing for the folks that had to experience that tornado, but it, you know, I think saved lives.

MYERS: We've now confirmed 14 fatalities. Any in your town?

VANCE: The last number I got was four in Lady Lake.



COLLINS: All right. So, obviously, as we continue on here today, certainly one of the issues that we will continue to question about, and that would be the warning system. It seems like one of the first questions we always ask about when we have a situation where a possible tornado, still not yet confirmed from the National Weather Service, goes through an area in the middle of the night. What can people do if they don't have power? If they don't have their own personal warning systems that we talked about moments ago with one of the weather radios. If you don't have a siren and you can't hear it, it's tough to get out.

HARRIS: You want an up close and personal look at just what this looks like on the ground? We're going to give you that now. Back on the ground to Lake County, Florida. And this report filed by WFTV just moments ago.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, we actually moved around it because we couldn't get through. We're on Alma Street right now, off of Griffin View Drive. Take a look here at some of the damage. Amazingly, I am being told, that no one was injured here. But you see the x's on the trailers? This means that the home has been searched. And we just talked with some Marion County deputies coming through and they say they're doing a secondary search of each home.

But we'll start over here if we could, and we'll just walk back this way, Carl (ph), and show that it, obviously, came from this direction. And you can see some of the destruction right here. There are these power lines that are down everywhere. Obviously a huge concern right now. There are a lot of folks right here. There's a Hispanic family and I've been trying to relay to them, as they were making their way through, to stay away from those lines.

And if you take a look over there, you can see, that is part of a mobile home that is up in a tree. Just behind us here is the Lady Lake mobile home park and they are only letting immediate family in there right now. But we're just trying to give you a sense of this street which is seeing this damage.

And, amazingly, I keep asking, are you OK? Is your family all accounted for? And everyone is saying, yes. But, obviously, the fear of what happened was tremendous.

Show you a little bit more here of some of the pieces of metal that are hanging on the power lines right there. And we have Chris Stone, who lives nearby, who's been surveying the damage himself here.

Chris, I appreciate you taking a moment to talk to us. You've made your way around the community. What does this look like in comparison to everything else you've seen so far?

CHRIS STONE, STORM SURVIVOR: This isn't near as back as just back behind this. Behind you there. It's real bad over there.


STONE: Pretty much. Pretty much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You were telling me about your own home. You were home when this happened. You're, what, a few blocks away from here?

STONE: I'm probably 150 yards from the start. So it was noisy and scary. And, I mean, I've got some big limbs down and a trampoline wrapped around the tree. But other than that, I mean, not missing a shingle or anything. I just thank God that my family got out safe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is this surreal to you as you talk to your neighbors here?

STONE: Yes. I've never seen anything like this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are you trying to do now? I mean, obviously, I've seen you walking the streets, looking for yourself. But, you know, I'm sure you've been trying to communicate with your neighbors here to see if they need any help. Is that really your goal right now?

STONE: Yes. I mean everybody so far seems like they're just not even really worried about starting to clean up yet. Still trying to sink in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's still a shock at this point?

STONE: Yes, I think so.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Chris, thanks for taking a moment. I appreciate it.

As you said, Marion County deputies are making their way through here. I talked with them a moment ago. They said they don't believe there are any fatalities on this street. But let's just show more of the damage here. As you can see, take a look at this mobile home just to the right and you can see the insulation. The entire roof was pulled off.

This is a family that lives here. The rest of the family lives in a mobile home right next to it. And I was talking with one of the little girls who speaks English and she was telling me that, you know, the family had no time to react. They heard that horrible sound of a freight train, tried to get into a closet, but there was no time. Part of the roof was off. They can stand in their trailer, look up and see the sky.

And this is where I was referring to that just behind here is where the Lady Lake mobile home park is. And if you take a look at this mess of trees right here, just beyond that is the area where deputies are not letting anyone into, just immediate family. And we'll just show you here in the survey what it looks like. It's unbelievable. These are pieces of people's homes that in the trees right now. Some of the glass on the windows just completely came out. We can move over to the side here. You can see that it's just completely punched out from the winds that came through here. But again, people are walking around, shaking their heads. You see them here, saying they're absolutely terrified, and yet thanking God that they came through it, without a scratch. I mean, there's no one on this street that's injured. That's phenomenal, considering that we are hearing reports of fatalities on such a difficult day.

ANNOUNCER: Live in the CNN NEWSROOM, Tony Harris and Heidi Collins.

COLLINS: Good morning once again, everybody. I'm Heidi Collins.

HARRIS: And I'm Tony Harris.

Thank you for staying with us in the NEWSROOM. A pretty devastating morning, if you've been with us, for the folks in Central Florida. Time pretty soon here for the residents of Central Florida throughout the state to hear from their elected representatives, the governor of Florida, to speak on this virtually unspeakable disaster through Central Florida in just a couple minutes. We will bring you the comments from Florida governor Charlie Crist, scheduled any moment now in the NEWSROOM. We'll bring it to you live.

COLLINS: Meanwhile, at least 14 people have been reported dead in these brutal storms in Central Florida. The fast moving storms packing suspected tornadoes ripped across the state in the middle of the night, just after 3:00 a.m. or so. Injuries are also reported. The town of Lady Lake was especially hard hit.

At least two mobile home parks were devastated. Trees and power lines are down all across the area. Emergency crews searching neighborhoods for residents who may be trapped. Victims describe their ordeal.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't hear the noise, but the roof fell in on me, and that's what woke me up. But we're lucky to be alive, I think.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard the noise. It sounded like a freight train coming, and then all of a sudden it was just gone.

QUESTION: You look at your house, can you believe you're here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I can't. I'm just thankful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It took it all the way over here.

QUESTION: There wasn't nobody...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, nobody. It was empty; it was for sale.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Pennsylvania, this is unheard of. Once in a blue moon you'll have something like this up through central Pennsylvania, up the western part of the state.

QUESTION: Is this the worst of it right in here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What I've seen and have been told, this is the worst, right here in the front of the park.


COLLINS: The winds from the storms were so powerful tractor- trailer trucks were literally just blown right off the road and power outages in the area are now extensive. I believe about 20,000 people or so without power. We're waiting to hear from Florida's governor, as we mentioned. We will bring that to you live when it happens. It should be just a couple minutes away.

HARRIS: And as we get to Chad Myers, Chad, we can tell from these pictures that people are going to need help and need help desperately, and quickly. We understand that FEMA's director has been on the phone with the governor, Charlie Crist. No plans at this point for Director Paulison to travel to Florida, no FEMA materials are headed to Florida at this point. There's this whole process that needs to unfold now with emergency declarations. That hasn't happened yet. But we understand that Florida is in region four. That's governed by Atlanta, and a liaison is on his or her way to help in Florida and start to coordinate efforts there.

And clearly, from these pictures, folks are going to need some help, and quickly.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Do you find it ironic they threw away all that ice the other day?

HARRIS: Yes, yes.

MYERS We're going to a news conference, Tony. You take it over and I'll come back.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The organizations here within the state, EOC, and as you'll hear within a minute, down within the operations of Central Florida. At this time, it is my honor and pleasure to turn the podium over to the governor of the state of Florida, Governor Charlie Crist.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST, FLORIDA: Thank you, Mike. Obviously, early this morning, we had a significant weather event. I have just signed an executive order that will affect the four affected counties. They are Volusia, Sumter, Lake and Seminole counties. State emergency operation center obviously is in full mode. These people are working hard, and they're doing great work. We are coordinating with local officials to make sure that Floridians are safe, that they are secure. You know, this is one of the most important things we do in government, is protect and serve our citizens, and that's exactly what's happening here.

Our priority today is search and rescue. We want to make sure that anybody who's in the affected area, that we make sure we get them out, we get them out safely. Local officials, firefighters are doing that as we speak, and we appreciate their service. We already have established good communications in the area, in the affected area, throughout Central Florida. It looks like the storm is passing through. Ben Nelson will talk about that shortly. As I said, we have the executive that's order already signed.

We understand people want to check on loved ones. They should not try to get into the area if they're not already in there. We want to leave the passageways clear for emergency vehicles. Make sure that those individuals, the first responders, are able to get in there as quickly as possible to make sure that we protect life.

I spoke with the director of the FEMA, told him how important it was to get as much assistance as possible. We've also been in communication this morning with the White House. They said they would give us full support from the federal government. I also spoke with Senator Martinez this morning.

I'll like to now turn it over to Craig Fugate, and he'll give you more details about this, and then we'll hear from Ben -- Craig.

CRAIG FUGATE, DIR., DIVISION OF EMERGENCY MGMT.: Thank you, governor, lieutenant-governor.

Again, this morning, unfortunately, again, we've seen what Mother Nature can do without warning. Tornadoes -- and this looks to be, as Ben will point out, one supercell that initially made impact in the Sumter County area, around the villages, moving across the state, causing damage as far as Volusia County, including overturned vehicles on I-4. The highway patrol reported that I4 is open, one lane in each direction in that area of impact but also asking people stay off the roads. We have a lot of traffic signals out. We have power lines down. We have debris on the road.

So unless it's necessary, please stay off the roads; leave those open to the emergency responders. Teams were moving as soon as the damage were being reported. Urban search and rescue teams coordinated by the state fire marshals office have been augmenting local responders.

As the governor says, our mission today is like safety. We want to get to those who are injured, get them the medical care and deal with issues that people are facing now, particularly those that have had their homes destroyed. That is our focus today, and what the team started doing in the early hours this morning when the storm struck, and we'll continue to do that when we're at a point where we have the situation stabilized.

But again, this event occurred in the early morning hours, and I'm going to ask Ben Nelson, the state meteorologist, to update you what has happened and any future potential as we still have some strong thunderstorms, no tornadoes at this point, but strong thunderstorms still moving through the state -- Ben.


This is something we've seen in the past in our state, when we have El Nino conditions in place. Back in 1998, in February, we had numerous tornadoes touch down in Central Florida in the middle of the night. And if there's any more evidence any of our state families need for have NOAA weather radio or all-hazards radio this is another example of having that device to warn you in the middle of the night when you aren't necessarily watching TV or listening to radio.

This system evolved in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday. Again, we had a squall line of thunderstorms develop in the panhandle. That moved into Central Florida overnight. Our wind fields were conducive for tornadic development, and that's why the Storm Prediction Center had the tornado watches in place for a good part of our state as this progressed northwest to southeast.

As Craig mentioned, we had one storm within this overall line. We call those supercells, and that was a rotating thunderstorm that moved onshore, and it started to produce the tornado once it got over to Sumter County, right around 3:00 in the morning, perhaps just a little bit before. That moved eastward at about 50 miles an hour, again, across the lake. It perhaps impacted Southern Marion, and then moved over into Volusia County by about 4:00, when it crossed I-4.

now we had other thunderstorms later in the night and this morning just to the south, and Volusia County also produced tornadoes, Polk County, and now that line has moved through Brevard County, where we had a tornado reportedly touch down in the southern part of that county.

so as we move through the day, this squall line is going to continue to sink toward South Center Florida, toward the Lake Okeechobee area. We expect the tornado threat to diminish as the day goes on.

But again, it just underscores the fact having a NOAA weather radio during these events when we have them overnight is essential. The weather services in Melbourne and Tampa provide at least eight to 15 minutes of warning before -- between the time the warning was issued and the time the tornado touched down.

Thank you.

CRIST: I want to stress, before we take questions, the importance of people in the affected area to listen to your locally elected officials, It's important to stay in touch as much as you can. We realize that some people are still without power. We understand it's about 20,000 households without power. So hopefully a lot of people have radios and can stay in touch.

If you have questions, we'll do our best to answer them.

QUESTION: How about fatalities?

CRIST: We don't know, Jason. We understand there are fatalities. We don't have an estimate on it. We know that, you know, there are news accounts what the number might be, but we're not going to guess.

And, Craig, you might want to walk through sort of the protocol on that.

FUGATE: Unfortunately, yes, we do have reports of fatalities. And knowing from past history that trying to estimate those is a disservice to the victims and their families, our procedure is as the fatalities are identified, we treat them with dignity and respect. The medical examiner's office will process and determine if this is indeed a death that's related to tornadoes, and those will be reported by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Until the medical examiners are able to determine cause of death, we will not estimate or report numbers.

But we do acknowledge, unfortunately, there are fatalities. Again, our focus is on the living and injured, and with dignity and respect, reach those that have lost their lives, get them to the medical examiner's so that we can, again, determine that and make sure that the notifications are made.

But as you know, these are very confusing situations. We do not want to diminish this threat, diminish the fact we've lost lives. We also know we don't want to be estimating, because this is, again, people's family members. Dignity and respect. When we give you numbers, those will be certified as the medical examiners do that process.

We have National Guard on standby. Again, this is an area because of a lot of training and activities for everything from hurricanes to domestic security, we have a lot of search and rescue teams, lot of law enforcement. And this is when mutual aid really pays off. Very quickly, those counties impacted looked to their neighbors, so units were able to come in very quickly.

The state fire marshal's office here is coordinating with the Florida fire chiefs for those resources. The National Guard was brought in and notified early. They are on standby. At this point, we may need some aviation assets as we do assessments, but right the principle people on the ground are your local first responders, your firefighters, police officers and EMTs and paramedics that are out there right now.

QUESTION: How many are without power?

FUGATE: Earlier this morning we had an estimate of about 20,000. That number is probably a moving target. What we generally see in this, as the governor had asked earlier, is probably some of that power is going to come on quickly, others depending upon damage will take longer. But we do know that in those areas, there are a lot of traffic signals out, and that is going to makes driving very hazardous.

And again, if you don't need to be on the road, do yourself a favor and help out the highway patrol and local enforcement. They're trying to get these people that are injured. We don't want to have to be working more accidents because people were not being cautious and trying to avoid the areas of impact.

Excuse me?

What we're doing with the teams is putting them in there under the assumption that we have to go look, and if we find people, get them out. So those teams are currently working. And, again, if you've seen the images, and if you've ever been on these, you know, that in some of these areas, there's debris all over the place. You literally have to go in there by hand and turn over the tin, look underneath, and make sure we haven't missed anybody. Also as we get reports coming into the 911 centers and the local law enforcement that people are missing, it's concerted efforts.

Unfortunately in the 42 lives we lost in 1998, some of those were blown so far away from their homes, that it was a day or two before they were recovered.

Again, our focus is on the injured. These are the people we need to get to now, and then we work closely with the law enforcement and medical examiners to get the fatalities. And again, this is a tragic situation, we don't want to, you know, diminish that, but we have to focus on the living and injured, because if we're going to save people, those are the folks we need to get to today.

We do not have estimates of injures. And, again, this is happening as we speak. It's been going on all morning. Again, we'll start having numbers for you later this afternoon and tomorrow. But what we've focused on is moving resources. We weren't even waiting for requests before we started adding more resources. As it became apparent, the magnitude of this, our focus is to get enough resources there today so that we can complete that search, get to the injured, get the area stabilized. The numbers will come as we start counting things up. But we weren't waiting for numbers to respond. As Government Crist points out, our mission is public safety and health and welfare, and that's our focus right now.

All throughout Central Florida, and we'll have more numbers for you and we'll get you a list which teams have come from where.

Not that far south, mainly from around the Orlando area. Again, some of the things that we've been able to build in this state is additional search and rescue teams we've used. If you remember, these are teams throughout the hurricanes, even deployed in Mississippi. So these are experienced responders, they've been to numerous hurricanes, unfortunately, seen far too much of this, but they are the experts and they're on the ground working right now.

QUESTION: What can you say to the people who are concerned about loved ones, or perhaps concerned about what's left of their homes?

CRIST: Well everything's being done to get them the aid and assistance that they deserve and that they need. As Craig indicated, local officials are on the scene, they're doing everything possible to render aid, to get people out, to do the kind of things necessary to provide that safety and security. I would emphasize something else he mentioned, too, that, you know, obviously, power is out. People need to be careful. If they see a wire down, they should assume that it's live and deadly, and just be cautious and careful. That is the watch word of the way.

I wanted to mention to you, too, that I'm going to be going down there as soon as we finish up here. I'll be joined by the CFO, CFO SYNC (ph). I understand that the attorney general is already in the Central Florida area, as well as Senator Nelson, so we're going to be going down there shortly, and we look forward to being at the scene and surveying the situation locally.

Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

HARRIS: All right, you've been listening to a news conference out of Florida, featuring Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, Craig Fugate, Florida's emergency management director, Ben Nelson, Florida's state meteorologist.

The governor, off the top, saying that he has signed an executive order, a state disaster declaration, for Volusia, Lake, Sumter and Seminole counties. This is right now, still very much a search-and- rescue operation that is going on. The governor has been in contact with the White House, has been in contact with FEMA.

FEMA's response is going to be key to this. Let's bring in now Jeanne Meserve, our homeland security correspondent.

Jeanne, everyone's watching FEMA now, and certainly will be.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And FEMA is well aware of that. Director Paulison was on the phone this morning with the governor, talking with him about the situation on the ground. FEMA has mobilized what they call preliminary disaster assessment teams, those who are going down to Florida from places like Georgia. Some of them I believe are already instate. They will get out and do a real assessment of what they see on the ground, and forward that back up the chain of command. That will be considered, along with the governor's request, and then up to the president to make a presidential declaration of whether this is a major disaster, or a major disaster, or not a disaster at all, and at that point, then the spigots will open, and aid will presumably flow down to Florida.

In the meantime, FEMA has put some liaison people down in Florida, for instance, at the state emergency operations center, so they can keep better tabs on things as they are developing.

HARRIS: Jeanne, I think that's interesting. We take a look at these pictures in the air, and we can see quite clearly, and, in our own mind, it certainly is a federal disaster that we are witnessing. But you are right to point out that there is a whole process that has to play out here before the federal government declares it as such and makes funds available.

MESERVE: That's absolutely right. There's a very clear-cut process which has to be followed. There is a great anxiety on the part of federal officials not to step on the feet of Florida, but, on the other hand, if Florida is saying this is a major disaster, we want your help, they hope that the federal government will then apply it. That doesn't always happen. apparently. Someone handed me a letter written by the governor of Florida to the president on January 30th of this month, appealing the fact that after four -- excuse me, tornadoes hit Florida on Christmas Day, the governor had requested a major disaster declaration for the state, and they haven't gotten that yet. So they're still waiting for that.

HARRIS: OK, Jeanne Meserve for us at Washington. Jeanne, thank you.

Again, as we re-assess the situation on the ground, what we learned from the governor's news conference just a short time ago, 20,000 households at least now without power. That is totally understandable. The governor, Governor Charlie Crist, Heidi, about to take a tour of Central Florida and all of these devastated areas that we've been showing you throughout the morning.

COLLINS: Right, and it is so very important, as we heard the governor say, that they very quickly sign those executive orders declaring a state of emergency, as we look forward for the people there in rebuilding. It sounds ridiculous to talk about on this very day, but once they get over the shock of what's happened, that will become very, very important to them.

So once again, they spoke with FEMA, they spoke with the White House. And today, that mission is life safety, and to protect the people who are still alive and who may, as we've been hearing, still be trapped in some of the debris that you are been looking at now, still on a full search-and-rescue mission across central Florida.

COLLINS: Meanwhile, what's ahead for the U.S. in Iraq? A new intelligence report offers a new and gloomy assessment, what it could mean for U.S. troops coming up right here in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: New concerns today in the fight for Iraq, amid a new national intelligence estimate on the situation there. But Bush administration officials and government sources have revealed key findings to CNN. We are told the national intelligence estimate identifies Iraqi on Iraqi violence as the primary source of conflict.

The al Qaeda inspired insurgency was previously seen as the top concern. Sources say the report cites sectarian violence as the most immediate threat to the Bush administration's goal.

Also, we are told the report charges Iran with supplying and aiding Iraqi extremists. Sources say the report comes to no conclusion about whether Iraq has indeed reached the state of civil war. But it expresses deep uncertainty about the ability of Iraqi leaders to move beyond sectarian interests, fight extremists, end corruption and build national institutions.

One official says the report notes rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would lead to quote "further deterioration." And an NIE report has been released, as we say. If you want to go ahead and look at its entire findings, you can go to We're going to be bringing up our Elaine Quijano from the White House live in just a few minutes to tell us all about it.

HARRIS: And let's reset the situation in central Florida right now. A likely tornado has leveled several central Florida neighborhoods. Chad Myers, we heard a lot in a briefing a short time ago from Ben Nelson, Florida state meteorologist. He talked a lot about an El Nino pattern and then squall lines.


HARRIS: Boy, we can't say it enough. Chad, appreciate it, thank you.

COLLINS: Want to go ahead and get more information to you now, this coming to us out of Volusia County. We have on the line Holly Smith, she is the public information officer for Volusia County Emergency Management. Holly, can you hear me OK?

HOLLY SMITH, PIO, VOLUSIA COUNTY (on phone): Yes, ma'am, barely.

COLLINS: Tell me a little bit about what you are noticing in your county, as we look at these pictures today and have now confirmed here at CNN 14 people were killed across central Florida in these devastating storm?

SMITH: Well so far, we have not confirmed any deaths here in Volusia County, which is kind of amazing when you look at the extent of the damage of photos, video that you guys have been showing this morning.

We did have a report of one maintenance worker at a local elementary school who was electrocuted this morning, but we do not have any information on his condition, or the circumstances surrounding the injury.

But we have in the land area, just massive devastation in some areas of not only regular site-built homes, which are concrete or brick homes, but also some apartments. Also our health department, which was in a hardened facility also was damaged.

And over in New Smyrna Beach area, which is also part of Volusia County, south of Daytona Beach, there they have 100 and about 107 homes. Eleven of those are completely destroyed, as many as 25 with major damage. And over 70 with minor damage.

COLLINS: Did you feel it or see it come through, Holly?

SMITH: I was in Daytona Beach and we got heavy rain, some wind, but nothing like the tornadoes. And the way Volusia County is laid out, to our west, we have the St. John's River and then to the east of course, the Atlantic Ocean. And this tornado, if it was one or two, we haven't heard yet, seem to have caught like a clear path west to east through those two cities.

COLLINS: As you know, we are hearing live reports and some taped reports from our affiliates. Residents there saying they did not hear the warning sirens. What's the situation in Volusia County with the warning sirens?

SMITH: Volusia County does not have warning sirens. We have so many square acres and the middle of it is completely rural, that it's just not -- they wouldn't even work. It's too large of an area for something like that to happen. Here we rely heavily on the news media. They were all over the air, local news media throughout the afternoon and staying on air all night with constant warnings, reminding people to tune in to them. You know, the Weather Channel also did that. But locally, we do not have weather sirens because of the expanse of the county itself.

COLLINS: All right Holly, we appreciate your time this morning. I'm going to let you go for now, because we want to listen in to the Volusia County sheriff's department there holding a news conference. Let's hear what the sheriff has to say.


© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines