Return to Transcripts main page


Snowstorm Slams East Coast; Voting on Health Care Reform; Airlines Cancel Flights Due to Winter Weather; The First Day of Winter Tomorrow Starts Out Cold

Aired December 20, 2009 - 18:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Welcome to the CNN NEWSROOM.

The winter wonderland and nightmare. Upwards of two feet of snow coats the Eastern Seaboard from the nation's capital to northern New England, putting a freeze on plans for thousands trying to get there for the holidays with limited runways open from D.C. to Boston. Many flights are delayed or canceled. Driving -- not that much easier. And it's still not over.

Our crews are bringing you every angle of this record-breaking storm. Our Kate Bolduan is at Reagan National Airport where runways reopened early this morning after a closure Saturday. Susan Candiotti is at New York's LaGuardia Airport where some travelers will have to wait days to board. And our Allan Chernoff is In Manhattan where others are all taking it in stride. And meteorologist Bonnie Schneider is tracking the storm here in Atlanta.

So, let's begin with you, Kate, at Reagan.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Fredricka. Well, I'll tell you, since we've been here since early this afternoon, I've continued to see delays, but much fewer -- many fewer cancellations of flights as flights are now starting to take off.

Reagan National Airport, a major airport here in Washington, D.C., it was shut down, runways completely shut down overnight. But, finally, at 12:30 this afternoon a flight started taking off. The first flight was an Alaska Airlines flight that took off, as I said, right around 12:30.

But what is the result of these shutdown and delays and cancellations that continue? Well, you can see it behind me. Long lines and long waits -- and that's what we've been hearing. That's what we've been seeing.

We've been walking through the lines, talking to people today, and that one person, Carrie Palmer, she's trying to get to Dallas since Friday. She's actually been trying to get to Dallas since Friday. She was waiting in line for three hours. Then she finally came up to me a long time later and said I finally got a flight. I'm running right now. She said it's leaving in 20 minutes. I'm getting out of there. So, there is some good news coming out of this airport. But you can see long lines here inside and out as people are trying to either rebook their flights or simply check their bags if they're coming here for the first time.

An airport spokesperson, Fredricka, tells me, although they're trying to get back to full strength really, they say it could be days before they really cleaned up this cancellation mess due to this massive winter storm -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks so much, Kate.

Let's find out if there's any good news to share coming from LaGuardia Airport where we find our Susan Candiotti -- Susan.


Well, the monster lines that were here earlier are gone but a lot of headaches still persist, that's because of the three regional airports, JFK, here at LaGuardia, and Newark, more than 1,200 flights have been canceled over the last couple of days.

And so earlier this morning, for example, at the American Airlines ticket counters here at LaGuardia, the lines were backed up with people trying to get out. Some people showing up, not knowing their flights had been canceled. Some flights were canceled only when they arrived. And so, all the airlines are trying to make good as best they can to try to get things back to normal.

But we also talk with people who have been spending the last couple of days trying to get out of here and some still aren't sure when they will be able to fly again. For example, Delta Airlines is offering refunds to those whose flights were canceled and are waiving any fees on those who need to, obviously, rebook.

So, how long it will take to get back to normal? I don't know. But we can tell you, the airports never closed. The runways have been open. The problem have been flight crews and aircraft.

Back to you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Oh, boy. All right. Susan Candiotti at LaGuardia, thanks so much.

So from Borough of Queens, let's head our way now to Manhattan. Allan Chernoff is there.

How have New Yorkers been braving the elements?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, around here, no problem at all. If you don't have to travel, it's great. The priority number one in my household, when the snow starts coming down, get the kids out on the slopes, at least sledding if we can't make it to the ski areas, and then I had them out early this morning.

And you know what? A lot of other people had the same idea. They were behind me in Central Park. Central Park was packed with kids enjoying themselves, having snowball fights, sledding snowshoeing, whatever. It is really the winter wonderland playland for Manhattanites young and old.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sledding, running into people.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just lovely. Snow all white, and right now, way too many people, but it's great at the park looking all these people. When my son was 3 years old, we sledded down this hill.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We got out here early and blazed a trail, and it got faster and faster and faster and more crowded.


CHERNOFF: Well, you know, of course, it got crowded, but when you're having a lot of fun, you don't mind the crowds that much. What some people do mind, including me, is all the shoveling -- and there has been lots of shoveling here in the New York region up and down the entire Atlantic Eastern Seaboard.

We had about 10 inches in parts of Manhattan, some of the boroughs had even more. Brooklyn, more than 10 inches, 11, 12, 13 inches. Out in New Jersey, southern New Jersey, 20 inches in some regions, and Long Island got the brunt of this storm. Suffolk County, way out near the tip of Long Island, there were some areas that had as much as 26 inches.

You know, one of the down sides of spending so much time sledding you put off that shoveling. So I have a little work to get to when I get home -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Oh, and you'd better hurry up because as the temperature drops, that means it's going to get harder to move that snow.

CHERNOFF: Yes, it does. That's right. Exactly.

WHITFIELD: All right.

CHERNOFF: You know, you pay a price.

WHITFIELD: That's right, you do. But you've got to get the fun in when you can.

All right. Allan Chernoff, thanks so much. Appreciate that.

Our meteorologist Bonnie Schneider has been keeping a close watch on the storm, looking at those pictures.

I know you wish you were home in New York, Bonnie.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: OK, I remember sledding. Oh, so much fun. It's on the weekend.

WHITFIELD: I know, that's a killer.

SCHNEIDER: Perfect, perfect.

OK. You know, 10 inches of snow, as Allan mentioned tough to shovel, no doubt about it.

OK. You've got to see the snowfall totals because it's a lot more than 10 inches as you look towards Maryland and Virginia, specifically, 23 inches in Bethesda, outside of Washington, D.C.; Arlington, 20 inches. Some of the airports, about 18 to 16 inches. So, a lot of snow still on the ground and as you mentioned, it is cold out there. So, that's going to pack in tonight.

But how do you get around when you have so much snow? Let's say Fredericksburg, which isn't too far, about 52 miles south of Washington, D.C., I want to show you how you get around. You can't really shovel out when there's two feet of snow on the ground. We have some pictures to show of what it was like there. You can see the cars are all covered up.

That's how you do it. You snowshoe it. Why not? Hey, it works and it's good exercise, too.

So, almost two feet of snow on the ground there and in parts of Virginia, it's tough to get the cars out, though. That's always the problem because the cars really have to be pushed out and that one looks like it was successful. And that is teamwork. That's the effort there.

All right. Where is it snowing right now and where do we still have trouble spots? Well, we have it on the Cape -- Cape Cod. Look at these winds coming in at 30 miles per hour. So, these are some strong winds and even though the snow is sort of tapering off near Barnstable, right at the extreme, all the way to the east end of areas into Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, a little snowy, the wind blows the snow about. So, you lose visibility and it makes it very tough. So, this would be a good night to hunker down in New England before you have to deal with more problems out there.

You know, into parts of Maine, we've also been tracking the threat for blowing snow. Finally, the advisory for Coastal Maine just expired about seven minutes ago, but you're still going to have problems in terms of wind and even the threat for power outages.

Check this out tonight. This is what we're facing across much of the region: blowing snow, the possibility of more power outages due to the wind and dangerous travel conditions. And a lot of that has to do with the icy weather that we're seeing across the region.

And here's something really interesting: now, the nor'easter is pulling all the way away into New England, you think places like southern Ohio, West Virginia, into Kentucky, no problem. Well, look at this -- there's a new winter weather advisory that goes until 11:00 tomorrow morning. That's because a brand-new system is working its way across Ohio and it's going to clip this region tonight and into the overnight hours, especially, bringing a few more inches of snow. So, not out of the woods yet by any means for this region.

Low temperatures tonight are also going to be frigid, dropping down to 19 in Boston, 23 in New York City, and 22 into Washington, D.C. And we look towards to tomorrow, it's important to note that tomorrow is actually the first day of winter. Winter begins on Monday and appropriately so, the temperatures will be blow freezing throughout much of the northeast -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: Wow! Big brrr. All right. Thank you so much, Bonnie.


WHITFIELD: We'll check with you a bit later.

A very sad news coming out of Hollywood: actress Brittany Murphy is dead. The 32-year-old was best known for roles in "Clueless," "Eight Mile" and "Just Married" with former boyfriend Ashton Kutcher. Well, she was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, about five hours ago.

The L.A. Police Department is investigating Murphy's death. A spokeswoman says robbery and homicide detectives are on the scene. However, a cause of death has not yet been released.

In the nation's capital, we are hours away from an important vote on the Senate health care reform plan. Our Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It will be a late night or an early morning, Fredricka, depending on how you look at it. One a.m. will be a critical Senate vote on the president's top priority. We'll have more on that coming up after the break.



WHITFIELD: All right. A snowcapped White House is keeping a close eye this Christmas season on what's taking place down the street on Capitol Hill. U.S. Senate Democrats had the 60 votes they need for health care reform. But if they want to pass their bill by Christmas, there's still a lot to do. Senators face a long night ahead with a key vote set to happen just after midnight.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill with more on this -- Dana.

BASH: Hi, Fredricka.

Right. Well, this is going to be, really, probably the most important vote in the health care debate so far, because the big issue for months and months and months during all of the debate and wrangling has been whether or not the Democrats had the 60 votes needed, that super-majority needed to break a Republican filibuster or any procedural attempts that they have tried to put in Democrats' way to stop health care. Well, because of this compromise that Democrats seem to work out last night, it looks as though they do.

And so, at this point, they are in here today. They are letting the clock run to overcome some of those Republican hurdles, if you will, and they will have a vote exactly at this point, it's planned for 1:01 a.m. Eastern. And if they do get the 60 votes, as they think that they will get, that is going to put the wheels in motion for what will ultimately be a final Senate health care bill, probably by about Christmas Eve, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And so, Dana, you talk about a compromise. What is the compromise all about?

BASH: Right. And, again, this is all Democrats compromising with Democrats. This is going to be expected to be an entirely partisan vote later tonight, all Democrats. But in order to bridge the very deep philosophical divide in the Democratic Party, the leadership had to give a little to moderates and give a little to Republicans.

Let's start with the moderates. The big -- the big concession that they made to moderate Democrats is: there's no government-run health care option at all in this bill. Instead, what they've put in are not-for-profit private insurance plans and they will be not run by but overseen by a government agency and that is the Office of Personnel Management.

Well, liberals have been very, very upset -- you know, expressing outrage basically that they're not getting what they think is the biggest tool, a public option to compete with private insurers and bring numbers down.

So, what are liberals getting in terms of their ultimate goal to bring costs down for private insurers? They're getting new regulations on insurance companies, and specifically one of the things they said they're most proud of is that with this measure, 80 percent to 85 percent of premiums for health insurance companies must be spent on medical expenses. So, it can't be spent on overhead or profits or anything else. So, that is something that liberals say they got.

If you talk to liberals, talk to moderates in the Democratic Party, most will agree that in terms of trying to get the 60 votes needed, moderates won most of the concessions here.

WHITFIELD: And so, Dana, some compromises also brought some charges of bribery -- in what way?

BASH: Well, look, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, he was the final Democrat that was needed to come over to clinch that 60th vote -- the 60th vote needed to pass this. Part of the reason why they got him is because they negotiated a deal on the issue of wrenching issue of abortion. He is an anti-abortion Democrat, and they worked something out to have stricter restrictions on abortion. But there was something else, Fredricka, and that is that there's -- in this measure, they are expanding Medicaid for low-income Americans. That's part of how they're expanding health insurance coverage to Americans. But that's costly for state governments. Ben Nelson was able to secure for his home state of Nebraska 100 percent federal funding from now until eternity, basically. That's something that no other state got and Republicans are accusing Democrats, as you said, of bribery.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dana Bash from Capitol Hill...


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: A Medicaid deal for Senator Nelson, there's one state of the union where new enrollees for Medicaid will be signed up and it won't cost anybody in that state money. It's not my state. I've got 30 percent African-American population, a lot of below income African-Americans on Medicaid.

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), NEBRASKA: I didn't ask for a special favor here. I didn't ask for a carve-out. What I said is the governor of Nebraska has contacted me, he said publicly he's having trouble with the budget. This will add to his budget woes. And I said, "Look, we have to have that fixed."


BASH: There you see Ben Nelson denying any such thing. He says that he's doing what his state wants. But, certainly, Ben Nelson has become somebody in the bull's eye for a number of issues because he was the last guy to sign on to this deal at least on the Democratic side, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dana Bash, thanks so much, from Capitol Hill.

Of course, stay with CNN for the most comprehensive coverage on health care reform. Our Tom Foreman and Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be leading our special coverage, along with the best political team on television. Our live coverage begins at midnight, taking you right up to the key vote, only here on CNN.

So, of course, there's a lot riding on this health care initiative for President Barack Obama. I had a chance to discuss that and the president's week ahead with CNN White House correspondent Dan Lothian.


WHITFIELD: How much is at stake for the president and this Sunday night/Monday morning vote?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot is at stake. I mean, this is the president's top domestic agenda. And so, you know, he has always talked about wanting to have health care, especially for those, you know, 30 million uninsured Americans. He wants health care reform.

And so, they really are watching this closely. And I was talking to a senior administration official. He told me that they're very pleased with the way that this is going, but they realize that there's a long way to go. You heard David Axelrod talking about this this morning that they feel they're on the one yard line.

But as we know, if we want to use that metaphor from football, one-yard line doesn't mean that you're going to get into the goal. And so, they realize that a lot can happen there in the red zone. There will be a lot going on behind the scenes from the administration to make sure that that ball does cross the line.

WHITFIELD: Health care has become a top priority for Americans, but still, the economy is number one. The president -- that is still top of mind for the president this week. What is he going to be doing?

LOTHIAN: It really is. The president, again, will be sitting down and meeting with the CEOs of small and community banks to talk about ways that the administration can help them to do business, to get some ideas from them. As well as you know, recently, the president sat down with the CEOs of large financial institutions.

And so, this is just part of that process to try to find ways to increase lending for small businesses, to make sure that they have the tools because they see them as a key component of turning the economy around. So, the president is sitting down with the CEOs on Tuesday at the White House.

WHITFIELD: And this is the first Christmas for this First Family. Where will they be spending it?

LOTHIAN: That's right. And, you know, what's interesting is that they're from Chicago obviously, the president remarked yesterday that he feels -- he's starting to feel a little bit at home here in Washington because of this major blizzard here. So, it feels a little bit like Chicago.

But they're heading off to where they went last Christmas actually, to Hawaii, leaving sometime midweek, that's still a little fluid as to exactly when they'll be wheels up from Washington. But they'll be there until after the first of the year -- a chance to relax a little bit and maybe enjoy the surf.

But certainly you're never, as president, far away from that job. The president will still be dealing with health care, still be dealing with the economy, no doubt dealing with issues overseas and Afghanistan as well. So, he will always be plugged in. He will get a little R and R out in Hawaii, far away from the nation's capital.

WHITFIELD: A working holiday for the president of the United States.

LOTHIAN: That's right.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dan Lothian, thanks so much. Have a great holiday yourself.

LOTHIAN: My pleasure. Same to you.

WHITFIELD: All right. Time now for a quick look at the top stories.

Once again, recovering from the nor'easter of 2009, that's what much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. is doing right now after record snowfalls from Virginia and upward. Air and road travel a mess, but airport runways have reopened. And long lines of weary travels -- travelers, rather, are starting to get a move on.

So, there are 12 fewer detainees now being held at the Guantanamo Bay naval prison. U.S. authorities transferred them back to their home countries this weekend. According to the Department of Justice, four were transferred to Afghanistan, two to Somalia and six to Yemen.

So, we're staying on top of all your weather travel delays as well. And if you think, I guess, the airport delays are pretty tough, how about spending the next couple of days in a train station? Thousands are doing just that in one of the world's biggest cities. We'll take you there.



WHITFIELD: Oh, trying to find some fun in the nor'easter that simply swallowed Fredericksburg, Virginia, and a good part of the Mid - Atlantic States. You see the troubles were also under way for a lot of folks who tried to drive. Snowplows were out, but people resorted to snowshoeing. That seemed like the clever route to take.

OK. So we didn't just have a winter weather troubles in the U.S., but it also happened in Europe. The Chunnel connecting France and Great Britain is closed, stranding thousands of people.

CNN's Paula Newtown is sitting there with frustrated travelers in London.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, we're here with stranded passengers at the London terminal for the Eurostar, and this is what happens when a major transportation artery through Europe is stalled.

Right now, there are new trains running and there's such a backlog. This has been the situation. Now, we've had for days some pretty grim stories of people being stranded on the trains. Right now, that's not what's going on. Passengers are stranded here in terminal.

Now, Eurostar said it's doing what it can to make sure it deals with the backlog, but one thing it has to do first is get those trains running.


MARY WALSH, EUROSTAR SPOKESWOMAN: Really examining the trains, looking at the temperatures, the external temperatures, the internal temperatures, in the Euro tunnel and taking a view and feeding back the analysis to us on what we need to do and what the situation is.


NEWTON: Now, everyone here is trying to figure out what the situation is, what it will be. They are desperate to get on trains. Some of the situations are really quite grim. People are thinking, "Look, what are we going to do to get home for Christmas or to get to our loved ones for Christmas?" There have been other people, more of a lighthearted approach -- they're playing badminton, they're having picnics. At the end of the day, we heard from a lot of people who are incredibly frustrated.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There should have been some kind of contingency plan at least to get people across some other way, but there's nothing, absolutely nothing.

NEWTON: You're going to stay here until the first train rolls tomorrow morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I'll stay here. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a disaster. This is a disaster.


NEWTON: Many people who were here today are prepared to stay here all night. The reason is that if the trains do get moving, they want to be the first in line, and that's really what's angering people here. They realize there's going to be quite a holiday backlog.

In the meantime, anyone who's been able to make alternative arrangements, planes, other trains, cars, whatever, they're trying. But with the weather so bad right now, freezing cold in northern France and also in Britain, it's going to be very difficult for people to stick to some of those plans.

Paula Newton, CNN, London.


WHITFIELD: All right. So, travel is one thing, but a little snow wouldn't stop a football game, would it? We'll tell you what's been happening with some pretty important games.

And Toys for Tots -- are the tough times easing?


WHITFIELD: That nor'easter is still wreaking havoc for folks trying to get from point "A" to point "B," especially if you're talking about air travel.

Kate Bolduan is at Reagan National Airport where some folks are still remaining optimistic that they just might get there in time for Christmas.

BOLDUAN: They're trying. They're trying to have that holiday spirit, I guess you could say, Fredricka. Airports across the northeast are really digging out today. and here at Ronald Reagan that's exactly the same story. People trying to get out as today at 12:30 this afternoon after being shut down overnight, a first flight, Alaska Airlines was able to take off and flights are taking off. I just heard one actually taking off as we speak. People are trying to get our. We're still seeing some cancellations, fewer, though, and many delays. But what this all has really meant is very long lines. You could probably see it behind me, long lines and delays.

I want to show you some video, if we could, that photographer, Ken Tuey (ph), shot early today. He moved down the line. This was just one airline line in this terminal trying, people were trying to get up to the ticket counter we had to speed it up and show you how long these lines really were.

I met one person in the line, she had been in the line for three hours. Carrie Palmer has also been trying since Friday to get to her destination, Dallas, for the holidays.

Listen here to her.


CARRIE PALMER, FLYER: Everyone around me, we were all talking, bonding over the fact that we weren't getting anywhere. And I started standing in line at 11:00 this morning. It was pretty much a consensus that nothing was going on. And people were really worried about missing their flights, not getting any flights out until Wednesday at the earliest.


BALDWIN: The happy ending here, Carrie Palmer, after we spoke, she got a seat on a flight and it was leaving after 20 minutes, so she ran for her plane right afterwards.


Take a look behind me. I hope you can see it. There are these orange cones and this yellow caution tape, these are the makeshift lanes for passengers, this is just U.S. Airways. People have been winding throughout the day. You can -- just to put it in perspective, behind me is actually a short line for today. I guess that's some good news for you.

BALDWIN: I guess so. Glass half full. Thanks so much, Kate Baldwin there at Reagan National Airport.

Let's check out LaGuardia airport and see what's happening there in New York with Susan Candiotti -- Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: At least in the American Airlines portion of this terminal, there are no more lines left. Planes are starting to take off. Of course, the airport has been open all day yesterday and all day today, but in advance of the storm and as a result of the storm, they wound up canceling more than 1,200 flights.

There are some people here who will be spending the night, unfortunately, who are unable to make it to their destinations. But one of the privileged few characters, we'll say... (VIDEO PROBLEM).

WHITFIELD: Sorry about that. Hopefully, he's going to be able to share some good news that maybe he's about to be boarding his flight. We'll try to get back with Susan if we can.

Let's check in with Bonnie Schneider.

Maybe the weather is impacting our signal there out of LaGuardia.


WHITFIELD: Things like that happen, you know?

SCHNEIDER: Well, there's a lot of wind still around the region. It stopped snowing in New York. Some places, it's still snowing and when you see the snowfall totals, you might think it would be nice if it didn't stop completely.

Check this out. The snowfall totals in Massachusetts on the Cape, 21.5, that's a lot. Rhode Island, Warren, 21. Newport, Rhode Island, 20. Putnam, Connecticut, and then Gloucester, Massachusetts, now Gloucester is north of Boston. And if you go south of Boston, you hit another community known as Plymouth and we have some pictures to show you, incredible pictures. This is what it looks like when you have a blizzard. We can barely see in terms of visibility, the gusts are up to about 35 miles an hour. Temperatures right now in Plymouth, Mass, at about 25 degrees with strong wind gusts as well. and you could definitely see that the air, the wind is blowing that snow sideways so it's a good day to hunker down. The snowplows doing a great job. Massachusetts, used to snow, so no problem. That's a lot of snow to contend with.

Speaking of New England, we still have the nor'easter, it's just not quite done yet. It's eventually pulling off to the northeast but it's clipping the coastline of Maine, down through New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the eastern end of Long Island after getting two feet of snow. It finally stopped snowing there. But we're still looking at some very strong winds in the region.

We'll zoom into the Cape and you'll see the winds have died down a little bit from our last report but they're still strong in Hyannis, about 30 miles an hour, so we're watching that.

Here are the concerns as we go in forward into the evening hours. We're going to look out for blowing snow, the possibility of more power outages, dangerous travel conditions. For those of you that are renting a car, maybe you got stuck at the airport, you're like, I'm just going to drive. Take it slow on the roads. Even though it's stopped snowing to the south and stopped snowing in New Jersey and New York, the problem is there's a lot of snow on the ground. Temperatures will drop down below freezing tonight, so we're looking at a black ice situation where you can't quite see what's frozen and what isn't. Be prepared for that.

Now speaking of snow, we're tracking it in West Virginia where there was two feet of snow on the ground in many locations. You can see light snow in Ashland, Kentucky, at this hour. This isn't even from the nor'easter. A brand-new system is bringing in more wintry weather, so we have a winter weather advisory for southern Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky straight to tomorrow morning because a few more inches of snow is in the forecast for you unrelated to the northeaster. Once you've kind of dug out from that, you still have more to contend with. Temperatures outside are frigid. 31 in New York City and Philly at 33. D.C. at 35.

So very minimal melting, Fred, as we go forward. Even tomorrow, the first day of winter, most places still below. So a cold start to the season.

WHITFIELD: Yes. That snow may not be coming from the sky but it will still be on the ground in some parts.


WHITFIELD: Thank you, bonnie.


WHITFIELD: This holiday season is upon us and there is still time to get Toys for Tots. We'll tell you all about it and how you can make a difference.


WHITFIELD: We're going to try this again. Back to LaGuardia. Maybe the winds from the nor'easter interfered with our signal as we were talking to Susan Candiotti. She's got traveler's wit there.

Hopefully, Susan, you have some good news. Are they heading to a flight?

Can you hear me?

Well, Susan looks happy. Maybe her travelers are happy, too.

Can you hear me now?

All right. This is not going to work. We'll try it again later.

Let's talk about today's giving in focus. We are taking a look at the Toys for Tots program and it puts a smile on a lot of people's faces, including the children, come Christmas morning. so last year the program was running desperately short on gifts.

Photojournalist Bob Crowley takes a look at how Toys for Tots is doing this year.


SGT. CLINT SCHRIBNER, BOSTON TOYS FOR TOTS: The Marine Corps. Mission for Toys for Tots is to collect and distribute toys for needy children in our area. We have approximately 700 total campaigns. We are fighting battles but in a different way. We're fighting the poverty battle here in the United States.

KAY CARPENTER, TOYS FOR TOTS VOLUNTEER: We have a lot of toys. We're using them up rapidly. We're filling orders like crazy. They're delivering on the 18th of December. They'll be here between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning. They go out as fast as they come in. We've run out of some toys but overall we're doing better than last year.

BETTY WHALEN, TOYS FOR TOTS VOLUNTEER: Can you leave that one there?

As soon as we sort all of this we'll start making up orders and it'll be gone.

We'll empty this and he can pull this out first.

Ideally, they would be full of toys that we would just pick from to fill the orders but they're not. They're not.

UNIDENTIFIED TOYS FOR TOTS VOLUNTEER: It's a problem every year, running out of toys at this time of the year, but eventually we get the orders out.

WHALEN: Down to the wire usually. It's been tough the last couple of years. It's tough for everybody with the economic climate the way it is. Home losses, job losses, lack of funds.

CARPENTER: It's very important to keep our boxes full because we can't get orders out to people and organizations who need them in time for Christmas. You can keep donating even one small toy is wonderful, but everybody needs to get involved in doing it, so our boxes are not empty.


WHITFIELD: All right. Let's hope that third time is a charm as it pertains to LaGuardia. Let's check it out. Susan Candiotti at the airport there.

Do you have some good news for us?


WHITFIELD: OK, good. CANDIOTTI: It's the third time makes the charm by now. By now, the Goldberg family is going to make up a really good story to tell you, like they won a million dollars in the lottery. But, no.

I guess a bit of good news is your flight has been delayed multiple times but you're going to leave tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED GOLDBERG FAMILY MEMBER: Yes, we're going to be leaving around 8:00. We were supposed to leave at 5:00 but because the incoming flight was delayed they had to bump us. We should leave at 8:00 this evening.

CANDIOTTI: Do you ever worry when you make plans to travel around the holidays that something like this could happen? You live in Florida and are not expecting the snow but...

UNIDENTIFIED GOLDBERG FAMILY MEMBER: But, no, I didn't expect snow at all. I was hoping for snow but it really proved to be more exciting for our trip and nice memories can be made with it.

CANDIOTTI: Any aggravations because of the delay?

UNIDENTIFIED GOLDBERG FAMILY MEMBER: None at all. I'm glad we saw a little bit of snow. I mean, it made up for the trip, if you ask me. Any delays we may have, it's worth it seeing some snow.

CANDIOTTI: And happy to be back home tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED GOLDBERG FAMILY MEMBER: Very happy. I'm ready to party, to get with my friends, warm Florida.


No more snow.

CANDIOTTI: And they didn't bring boots. Well, except for you. Went to Central Park today.

In any case, they had more than 1,200 flights canceled here. Everything is not completely back to normal. A number of airlines canceled flights for good and can't get some people back home until Christmas day. So it may take a while, but they'll finally get it back. Runways are open. It's just taking a while to get extra flights out.

Back to you, Fred.

WHITFIELD: You found yourself some happy delayed passengers. Glad they're going to be on their way soon.

Susan Candiotti, thank you so much from LaGuardia. I appreciate that.

So for the next three and a half weeks, if it seems like every time you turn on the television you're seeing a college football game, well, you're not hallucinating. There will be 34 -- that's right, 34 bowl games between now and January 7th, wrapping up with the national championship game between Texas and Alabama. And hopefully, they'll have their shirts on, right?

Why are so many bowl games? Let's ask our resident sports guru, Rick Harrow.

Rick, good to see you. I never realize there had were so many, 34 bowl games.

RICK HARROW, CNN SPORTS BUSINESS: Hey, Fred, look at it this way. 68 teams, the payday is anywhere from a half million in the lower early time bowls to up to $17 million in the BCS national championship games. and it's economic impact at a time we need it best. Shreveport, Louisiana, El Paso, Texas, up to $250 million. Are there too many bowls? Do we have a layoff system? No, no. Strap it on and let's watch them.

WHITFIELD: I don't know why I was thinking most were around New Year's but we're talking right through the holiday season.

HARROW: We have 34 of them so we had to start yesterday and go through January 7th, believe it or not. Eight teams are 6-6. Yes, there are a lot of mediocre teams in there but it beats staying home and, you know, for a lot of people, it's great football over the holidays.

WHITFIELD: Let's talk about a former NFL star, not really about the bowl games, but instead he's been giving in a very big way. I'm talking about Warrick Dunn.

HARROW: Warrick Dunn is very interesting as a person. He's incredibly charitable. Grew up in a terrible New Orleans neighborhood, made his name in Tampa, made his name again in Atlanta and now he's looking at minority ownership. The NFL has encouraged minority ownership. Steven Ross brought the Williams sisters in. This may be a little bit different. There's a rule that requires minority hiring. So Warrick Dunn symbolizes an entirely new movement in the NFL.

WHITFIELD: Hmm. OK. And folks have been talking about Tiger Woods a lot. Some folks want add break but then the PGA said, we're going to call him player of the year. What do you see in the near term future of Tiger Woods even though he said he's left the game indefinitely?

HARROW: Well, we're going to talk about it for a long time. His hiatus, if it's small "H," then it may be business as usual. If it's a big "H," then the tour is in crisis management mode. And by the way, it's the kids, it's those charities, it's those hundred charities, the $10 million raised for the kids, that's at risk.

WHITFIELD: Yes, well, some of his sponsors because of those charities, because of his foundation, said we're going to hang in there. The PGA is giving him many accolades for those foundations, those charitable organizations. But, you know, you have to wonder about the staying power for the PGA since viewership went up because of him playing, the longer he stays out, the more the PGA or lots of tournaments lose money?

HARROW: 15 percent reduction in viewership for those eight or nine months that Tiger was out because of knee surgery. You knew he was coming back. Now you don't know when and even if maybe.

WHITFIELD: Rodeo circuit, I guess going.


I hear you have a personal connection. What can you tell me about it?

HARROW: It's going to look silly on national television. But that's not new. I was giving a speech at the national finals rodeo. It's a huge event, $20 million to $80 million impact in Las Vegas, by the way, the largest nongaming revenue event there. and I learned how to ride a bull. Yes, I did.

WHITFIELD: Good for you.

HARROW: Yes. Yes.

WHITFIELD: Oh, wow. OK. You cheater. That's a mechanical bull. I almost fell for it.


That's kind of cute.

HARROW: Kind of cute? Is that what you're going to say?


HARROW: Listen, it's 8.4 seconds. you'll notice that I stayed on it. Feels like 8.5 hours. This is incredible because there was a crowd of nearly 1,000 people, all applauding. I'm not sure if they were applauding my ride or they were applause that somebody would act like such an imbecile not only in front of the national finals rodeo -- I'll be quiet so you can hear me scream.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my gosh. That's fun. I have done that before and, you're right, it is harder than it looks to stay on.

HARROW: Yes, but you notice I did stay on. There it is. You are supposed to ride your hand while you're riding it not when you're finished.


WHITFIELD: Rick Harrow, thanks so much for being a great sport about it all, too.

HARROW: See you next week.

WHITFIELD: Hats off to you.

Paul Steinhauser is up next.

So how do Americans feel about health care as we approach that 1:00 a.m. vote?


WHITFIELD: As we approach a U.S. Senate vote at 1:00 a.m., Monday morning, so there have been a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns on health care reform, the whole debate as a whole.

Our deputy political director, Paul Steinhauser, has new and old numbers in the form of polls, et cetera.

There are a lot of people who are a little concerned that with health care reform means higher taxes, right?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Exactly, Fred. You're right. There have been a lot of polls this past month about this health care bill, and they kind of suggest most Americans, a majority at least, aren't so crazy about the bill. and here's the reason why. Take a look at this recent poll by CNN Opinion Research Corporation. 85 percent of the people we questioned said that the bill they raised their taxes, almost an equal amount said the bill could raise the budget deficit for the U.S. And look at that. Less than one in four said the bill can maybe help their family.

One thing that the president and Democrats have said, if we don't do anything, it will get worse. Check out this next number. This is interesting as well. This is a poll that suggests maybe it's not a great idea, maybe the current system is OK. This is a "Wall Street Journal"/NBC poll. You can see back in September, many people said, make changes instead of keeping the current system. Now it's swung the other way. Americans are kind of split and more say keep the current system.

Fred, I have to say one thing about all those polls. These are taken this month before these major changes. Most Americans don't know what's in this Senate bill. I think we'll get a much clearer indication about how Americans feel passing through the Senate when new polls come out at the beginning of the year, Fred.

WHITFIELD: People are asked about trust. Do they trust President Obama? Do they trust the Republicans? They didn't make the demarcation of do they trust Democrats versus Republicans, but instead, Obama versus Republicans. What does that mean?

STEINHAUSER: This is interesting. Earlier this year, more people trusted the president and Democrats in Congress to handle health care, to handle the reforms. Take a look at this number from ABC News and the "Washington Post." This is a recent poll that came out in the last week. Now can see the advantage for the president and the Democrats is deteriorating, but more people still think that the president and Democrats would do a better job than the Republicans. But it has dwindled a little bit, Fred.

WHITFIELD: Thanks so much, Paul Steinhauser. Thank you so much. This is going to be a late night for you as well as we await the U.S. Senate Democrats to make their vote come 1:00 a.m., Monday morning or tonight, whichever way you want to look at it.

Upping the ante in Sin City. The newest thing on the Las Vegas strip designed to get high rollers to open their wallets.


WHITFIELD: There's a big new attraction on the Las Vegas strip. It's not a big-name celebrity. Folks there hope it has the same kind of draw for tourists.

Our Betty Wynn explains.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, you're from Australia? Welcome. I mean it, welcome.

BETTY WYNN, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After five years in the making, City Center is a welcoming site to thousands, not just tourists but employees like security guard, Deloris Witherspoon, laid off in February and ended up losing her home.

DELORIS WITHERSPOON, CITY CENTER EMPLOYEE: I needed a job so bad. I needed a job like somebody looking for water and they were in the desert.

WYNN: She wasn't alone. Patrick Fukes also lost his job and couldn't afford to pay his mortgage.

PATRICK FUKES, CITY CENTER EMPLOYEE: I lost two homes, actually. I lost my house and my parent's house. Both my parents passed away last year and I was stuck with my house and then they passed away and then I had their house. So the family home and my home both gone.

WYNN: That was when he hit rock bottom.

FUKES: I went into a state of depression. I shut down. I didn't talk to anybody. I didn't sleep. I was up for week, months. I didn't leave my house. I was like Howard Hughes. Didn't cut my hair, didn't bathe, anything.

WYNN: It's these stories that make the opening of the newest addition to Las Vegas strip that much more important for the man behind City Center. But MGM Mirage Chairman and CEO Jim Murren, faced his own challenges getting the $8.5 billion project funded nearly going bankrupt waiting for loans.

JIM MURREN, MGM MIRAGE CHAIRMAN AND CEO: When we went to the banks, we said, give us the damn money. You know, we'll finish this. We got our money in. We'll get our partners' money in. We'll make sure you get your money back. We're not asking for a handout. There was no government bailout here. Just give us the money you promised us. We're going to employ these 12,000 people. You're going to make money, banks. We're going o make money as an enterprise and help the community.

WYNN: This spring the banks came through and for a community that has 13 percent unemployment rate and leads the nation in foreclosures, the 12,000 jobs city center created...

WITHERSPOON: How are you all doing over there?

WYNN: ... couldn't have come at a better time.

WITHERSPOON: It was like a dream come true. I just feel blessed.

MURREN: Seeing smiles on these employees' faces, seeing the energy, the excitement that they have is the best possible reward.

WYNN: And for Murren, watching his vision finally come to fruition, has ease d some of the pressure from what's been called a billion-dollar bet.

MURREN: The pressure level is vastly less than it was earlier this year. When we last met, we were wondering if the project would be finished, can we keep the jobs going? Can we open this project? Of course we've answered all those questions.

WYNN: Now the question is, can the gamble on City Center create the economic boost Las Vegas desperately needs?

Betty Wynn, CNN, Las Vegas.


WHITFIELD: And all the best to them.

So in the next hour of the "NEWSROOM," we'll be talking live with a relative of one of the hikers held in Iran. Three hikers say that they accidentally crossed into Iran in August. They face spy charges and a trial in Tehran.

Stay with CNN for the most comprehensive coverage of tonight's Senate vote on health care reform. Our Tom Foreman and Dr. Sanjay Gupta will lead our special coverage along with the best political team on television. Live coverage starts at midnight, taking you up to the key vote on CNN.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Right now, I'm going to toss it over to my colleague, Tom Foreman. He is live in Washington with much more straight ahead of the NEWSROOM.