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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Tornado Slams Joplin, Missouri

Aired May 22, 2011 - 21:00   ET

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


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Listen, Don Lemon here in Los Angeles. We have some breaking news to tell about you and it concerns the weather.

It's out of Joplin, Missouri. So, pay attention. Pay attention.

Just a short time ago, a powerful tornado leveled a big chunk of the city. Some of the worst damage is at the St. John's Hospital and the surrounding neighborhoods. Almost nothing, we're told, is left standing.

We have been monitoring the pictures and the feeds here. You see where Joplin, Missouri, is -- southwest corner of the state.

I'm going to bring in our meteorologist Jacqui Jeras now.

Jacqui, we have been monitoring these feeds. You have been monitoring scanner traffic.

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes.

LEMON: We're being told a number of injuries, possibility casualties. People are looking for people. What's going on?

JERAS: Yes. There's just so much devastation. It's hard to get a handle on how widespread this is. And, of course, communication is extremely limited. They're asking people to stay out of the city because emergency crews are trying to set up triages to help the people who have been injured. And also, you know, there are some reports of DOAs as well. So, we're not sure how many at this time.

A tornado did touch down in Joplin just before 6:00 Central Time. Moved through the downtown area and continued to push on up toward the north and east of there.

We've got reports of buildings in downtown damaged, homes that have been completely leveled, trees that have been snapped off, and just, you know, rubble all over the place. The scene has been described as being horrific.

There are reports, as you mentioned, the hospital -- St. John's medical center there. There's a gas leak in the area. They're concerned there could potentially be an explosion. There have been a number of life flight helicopters trying to get in and out of there to protect these people as well. A large scale search and rescue is going on. Neighbors are trying to help each other. People are missing. They're trying to get through that rubble and help anybody who might be trapped in this situation.

This is also very near Interstate 44. There have been a number of reports of people who have been trapped in cars there, semitrailers, which have blown over.

And so, this is a very serious situation that continues to be developing at this hour -- major damage, monster tornado that moved through here.

We saw this thing developing on Doppler radar. I have an image I could show you, which is on our GR118 if you want to take that. And when you see something like this on radar, if you see that bright pink ball kind of on the lower left hand corner of your screen, that's what we would call a "debris ball." So when something like that shows up on your radar, that tells you this is picking up pieces of buildings, picks up trees and causing major devastation.

So, that's what the radar image looks like when that tornado was moving through Joplin just a couple of hours ago.

I know, Don, that we've been in touch with some of our affiliates. Communication, as I said, is limited out of Joplin. We don't have satellite capabilities out of Joplin.

LEMON: And, Jacqui --

JERAS: So, our affiliates out of Kansas City are trying to get there to get those images back to us.

LEMON: Yes, you're right. St. Louis is one of the places -- I worked there at KTVI. But I want to say our affiliate, Jacqui, I'm going to read this and get back to you. But our affiliate KSTK is reporting that a tornado did hit Joplin, Missouri. They said it happened around 6:00 p.m. there Central Time.

We want to tell you, we're waiting for affiliate pictures out of this area. As Jacqui said, it's not a big area, not an urban area with lots of media there.

It said overturned trucks, damaged businesses. The National Weather Service is reporting it was directly hit by a tornado, Jacqui, and it touched down in the center of that town. It is not yet sending anyone to assess damage because of the weather, because it's not over.

And they said that Jasper County Emergency Management, that a tornado did hit the St. John's Regional Medical Center, reports of multiple injuries.

And, at first, Jacqui, there was the report of a possibility of an explosion at the hospital. ? Because it hit so big, this was so severe, the roofs of two city fire stations collapse and then there are reports of other damaged businesses near the city. So, Jacqui, you're right, not -- it's hard to get media access there because they have to travel so far. Hey, Jacqui, do you -- will you stand by and go through this with me?

JERAS: Sure.

LEMON: But I want -- can I bring in Chad Myers, as well, our other meteorologist here at CNN?

Chad, we saw what happened in Minneapolis and now, we're witnessing what's happening in Joplin, Missouri. This system is far from over.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST (via telephone): It certainly is far from over. And now, it's going to get to be nighttime. There will be fewer chasers looking at this storming to verify where tornadoes are on the ground and it becomes more dangerous, especially after dark.

And when you go to sleep, if the TV doesn't wake you up, you're not listening to the radio. You need to have that NOAA radio on tonight all the way from literally from Wisconsin, all the way down into Texas and Oklahoma.

That is a very scary picture. We talk about a hook echo sometimes, and you can see the hook and the bottom of the hook, like the fishhook there, is right over Joplin.

And Jacqui described it perfectly that that brightest spot was literally debris in the air being shot by the radar. The radar seeing the insulation in the air, shingles, boards, everything being picked up is being reflected back to that radar site. And that's why that bottom ball, the bottom of the hook, was so very bright.

And that is -- we see it -- we saw this in Tuscaloosa. So, I believe when we do get pictures, the very first pictures in, it may eventually look something like Tuscaloosa. It very well may have been an F-3 or 4 tornado, with wind speeds up to 200 miles per hour.

I've been reading all the wire copy and listening to scanner. There are trees have lost their bark. Literally the wind was so strong that the bark is gone from the trees. All of the limbs are gone. That tells me at least 150 miles per hour.

And, obviously, the weather service still very busy with other storms. Tornados are still on the ground right now, Jacqui.

JERAS: Yes, there are a number of warnings across parts of the Midwest. We've got watches that stretch over 1,000 miles right now. This stretches from, you know, the U.P. of Michigan, all the way down into Texas. So, this is a widespread outbreak.

We've had 42 tornado reports just in the last five hours. And we're going to continue to get more before the night is out.

LEMON: Hey, Jacqui, I'm watching some of the raw video coming in. And we have to turn it around to get it on the air. You and I have been monitoring the feeds. And I hate to say it, but it looks like when I was down in Alabama just a couple of weeks ago -- I mean, these -- you heard Chad say, bark off the trees. I mean, it's flattened. People are just walking around, some people covering their faces because I guess they're afraid of what might be in the air, could be the smell of gas or whatever.

JERAS: Right.

LEMON: But as I monitor these pictures, again, we're soon going to get them in, it's just unfathomable.

JERAS: It is. And there are many reports of those gas leaks that you were talking about. They didn't think an explosion actually happened at the hospital, like you mentioned. They were worried one would occur because of that gas.

And that's another one of the reasons why the National Weather Service isn't out there. That's another reason why emergency crews are having a difficult time is because they have to get people out of there because that gas, obviously, is poisonous, and they're going to have more problems as a result of that or more explosions could be taking place as well.

LEMON: And as I watch here, Chad, you said you've been monitoring scanner traffic and the weather service. I'm watching -- and, Jacqui you were watching as well, the Twitter feed. It is trending on social media. People are asking for help and trying to figure out exactly what's going on in Joplin, saying it's just unbelievable there. If they can even get Internet service, so they may be hearing from relatives in other places and reporting on it.

Chad, what do you know?

MYERS: What scares me the most, Don, about what we're about to see on this video I'm afraid is coming in at this point in time, is that we had reports of the tornado being two miles west of Joplin -- one mile south of Joplin, which is downtown center, not the city itself. But the city is more than one mile across.

And then three miles east of Joplin on the ground, very large tornado. Now, that tells me that this thing never did skip. In other words, this was not a small what we call "rope tornado," dancing around the prairie. This was a very wide, possibly half mile wide tornado at the base, could have even been bigger than that, rolling right through a major metropolitan area.

Maybe you've never heard of Joplin, Missouri, but it's part of a tri- state area there, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma -- Miami, Oklahoma, on the bottom side.

And Joplin, Missouri, the town itself, literally, 150,000 people. Although if you go on to any of the geography references, you may see 50,000 people. That's downtown Joplin. That's the city of Joplin. But there are -- literally, there are suburbs of the city making the entire population of the metro area, as we'll call, it 150,000 people. And there are people hurt in this. This was a dangerous, deadly, fatal, and as we know, it is still on the ground. As it moves east of Joplin, you see that on the right-hand side of your screen, there are fewer people living there. But to go through a major metropolitan area, just as it went through Tuscaloosa two weeks ago and Birmingham, that's when you typically get major casualties.

We talk about these tornadoes on the ground all the time. People ask me, why don't they ever hit towns? Because there are few towns, few and far between. But when a tornado of this size rolls through a city or a town, the damage escalates, the people injury escalate. You have you so many other debris flying in the air and people are injured by debris. People are hurt in the cars.

Where if it's just in the middle of the plains in a wheat field or a cornfield, people can get out of the way. If you're in a city like this, you cannot get out of the way.

LEMON: Yes. And I tell you, Jacqui, as I've sitting here looking at this, and it's a little frustrating for you and I imagine for our viewers, as well, because -- I mean, this is terrible just looking at the pictures.

When you and I were reporting on the air earlier today, that was just -- at least one person had been killed. That was in Minneapolis, 22 injuries.

JERAS: Right.

LEMON: But this is going to go up because of what's happening here. And I can tell you, from looking at this, it's bad.

JERAS: Yes, it's really bad. There will definitely be quite a few, I think, fatalities out of this based on the video I've seen. Some of this has been available on the Internet where you can watch live streaming. I literally saw a reporter break down and cry. That's how serious and how devastating this situation is.

And while I was listening to some of that scanner traffic that you were talking about with emergency managers, you know, one guy radioed to another guy. He says, "Hey, by the way, you know, you're by my house. Do you have any idea? Is anybody OK? Is my house still there?"

So, you know, people are dealing with their own disaster and trying to help other people in the process. You know, this is going to be a widespread devastating situation that's going to be ongoing throughout the night.

LEMON: OK, OK. Jacqui Jeras, stand by. Chad Myers, stand by -- both of our meteorologists.

And, listen, if you're watching, we want to tell you -- this is -- it's very serious. And these things happen very quickly, so that's why we're coming on the air now. We usually wouldn't be on. We're an hour early because of what's happening in Joplin, Missouri. We're going to get pictures in very soon.

A short time ago, powerful tornado leveled a big chunk of that city. Some of the worst damage, at St. John's Hospital -- a hospital there in Joplin, and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

You heard our Jacqui Jeras say a number of homes, buildings and as we're looking at these pictures, just before we get them on the air here for you, it's devastating. So, make sure you stick around.

Jacqui's going to join us on the other side of the break, so is Chad, and then we're going to get some pictures for you.

I'm Don Lemon in Los Angeles. We're going to continue to report on this breaking news of severe weather breaking out in the country right now. Don't go away. We're back in just moments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right. Breaking weather news and it is really bad. A tornado, we're getting reports of a tornado or tornadoes -- a powerful system that leveled a big chunk of Joplin, Missouri.

Here's what our affiliates are reporting. This is what our Kansas City affiliates are reporting: multiple people -- they're getting reports of multiple people trapped in homes, cars and businesses. Dozens of businesses leveled. The cell phone service is spotty, if there's any. Home service, out; electricity, gone.

They're searching for people. People are walking in the rubble. They can't believe exactly what happened.

This is away from media centers so it's tough to get cameras in there. But we're working on it. We have crews en route and trying to send pictures back.

I'm joined by our meteorologist Jacqui Jeras. She's at CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, in the CNN severe weather center. And, also, meteorologist Chad Myers joins us by phone.

To Jacqui first -- Jacqui, you've been monitoring these pictures, monitoring the scanners. What are you hearing now?

JERAS: Well, we're hearing that the scene is very horrific. We're hearing that, you know, there's a lot of uncertainty as to how many people have been affected. We're hearing block after block after block of just leveled buildings and homes.

Trees which have been stripped of their bark; trees that have been cut off, you know, at the base, at the trunk -- strong, huge trees that were very healthy.

We're hearing about triages which have been set up, the hospital has been damaged by the t tornado. There are many gas leaks. Emergency crews are having a hard time getting into some of these areas because there's so much destruction. In addition to that, you know, people can't really get around because power lines are down, because trees are covering those roadways, and because of some of these gas leaks that we've been talking about as well.

This all started before 6:00 Central Time. And we got an initial report there was a multi-vortex tornado. So, when we're talking about more than one funnel there, that can cause very chaotic destruction and spotty from place to place as well. This stayed on the ground for a long period of time and moved through the downtown center and continued through many of the suburbs as well.

So, it was a large destructive tornado. On Doppler Radar, we could see what we see a debris ball, which is a strong signature, that things like those trees -- there you can see it, that bright pink ball you can see near the center of your screen, that tells us there are things like roofs and wood and trees all getting thrown up well into the atmosphere. In fact, you know, could be up there several thousand feet. So, when you see a signature like that, you know how serious this situation is. And to go through a populated area like this, just so sad and so devastating.

Now, there's very little communication. A lot of people are having problems with their cell phones, not to mention, you know, most people don't have electricity here. And so, that's why we're having a hard time getting some communication out of that area.

In addition, our affiliates -- I know one reporter saw the whole thing happen. She was very shaken up. We were able to talk to her earlier, but we're having trouble getting back in touch with her. So, we're efforting that information as well.

There's a large search and rescue which is taking place right now. So, people -- you know, residents are going door to door to try to help their friends, in addition to rescue workers.

The weather service is trying to stay out of the area because they don't want to go in there and complicate things, but I've seen actual video the tornado funnel itself. So, there's no question it was a tornado. And there, you can see, this is a very populated area. I mean, you know, it's not St. Louis, it's not Kansas City, but there are about 50,000 people that live in the confines of Joplin and about 175,000 or so in the suburbs as well.

LEMON: Hey, Jacqui

JERAS: Yes, Don?

LEMON: Hey, Jacqui, I can jump in? Stand by. Chad Myers stand by as well.

I want to go to Steve Polley. He's a storm chaser. He joins us by telephone. He is near Joplin.

Steve, did you witness this? Tell us what's going on. STEVE POLLEY, VIDEOGRAPHER/STORM CHASER (via telephone): What we were doing, tracking the storm down I-44. The thing was shrouded in rain from our vantage point. As we come up on I-44, around U.S. 71, we started noting significant damage. Several semis were on their sides, power lines down everywhere.

We had to divert off. Off to an exit. And once we got off the exit, we pulled into a truck stop that had heavy damage. I believe it was a Flying J.

Once we pulled in there, we were just going to sit there for a second and we started hearing a hissing sound, noticing there was a propane tank about to level. So, we got out thereof at that point and went on to another safer spot.

LEMON: OK. So, were you in an area -- so, you were driving, you were traveling. Did you hear any sirens? Was there any warning?

POLLEY: There was not much warning. We were at a little different vantage point. As I said, we were in behind the rain curtains and hail was pretty intense at that point.

And once we got up onto the intersection of U.S. 71, of course, that's when we started seeing all the damage. It was maybe a mile to two miles ahead of us at that point.

LEMON: How long did this go on, Steve? How quickly did it take this system to run through there and rip up these homes and cause so much damage?

POLLEY: I would say under 10 minutes, from our -- from where we were at. It was less than ten minutes as it moved through the city.

LEMON: Yes. I'm going to bring in the experts who should be really asking you the questions on this.

Chad or Jacqui, whomever first, go for it. Steve, he's the storm chaser.

JERAS: Sure.

LEMON: Go ahead, Jacqui.

JERAS: Steve, I wasn't able to listen into your entire report there as I'm trying to gather some more information.

But did you actually see the funnel or did you see the multi-vortices that they were talking about?

POLLEY: We -- from our vantage point, we were unable to see that. Like I said, it was shrouded in rain and the hail core.

JERAS: OK.

POLLEY: But like I said, it was maybe a mile to two miles ahead of us from we can tell with our software that we were using. JERAS: I know it's difficult to see in terms of how widespread the damage is, but what are you hearing in terms of how much of the town is devastated or how many miles this thing may have traveled?

POLLEY: At least from what I'm hearing anywhere, I think from three to five miles long damage path. Near the hospital, complete devastation. There's several homes that were there and businesses, strip malls, that kind of thing, unrecognizable at this point. And basically, what you can see is just the hospital itself.

JERAS: Now, there have been --

LEMON: Hey, Steve, are you from Joplin?

POLLEY: No, I'm actually from the Kansas City area.

LEMON: You're from -- do you know the area fairly well?

POLLEY: Yes, I know it fairly well, yes.

LEMON: So, one of our affiliates is reporting, again, it was a multi- vortex tornado, several reports of numerous buildings along Range Line Road, Highways 37 and 96 were demolished. St. John's Hospital, of course, took a direct hit, along with Walgreens, a Home Depot, several other locations.

Tell us about this area. What does it look like if you're driving through there?

POLLEY: Really -- you know, when you come up onto it and different points -- parts of it, it's actually unrecognizable. There are different parts of town that, of course, have taken less -- you know, had less of an impact of the damage path.

But like I say, we pulled into what was a Flying J truck stop. You could tell it was a truck stop but there was significant damage there. They also had propane leaking -- pretty intense damage at that point.

And looked like there was multiple injuries on the interstate as we were trying to get out of the way of some emergency vehicles and things like that were coming in. We saw, you know, several people injured that were up on the banks of the interstate as well.

LEMON: OK. Hey, Steve, will you just hold on real quickly? We appreciate you helping us out here.

I want to bring in Ray Foreman, who is a meteorologist at KODE in Joplin, Missouri. Again, he's a meteorologist there.

Hey, Ray, thanks for joining us. Don Lemon here, Jacqui Jeras, our other meteorologist is here, along with Chad Myers.

Bring us up to date on the situation where you are.

RAY FOREMAN, KODE/KSNF-TV (voice-over): Well, this was actually a devastating tornado. It seemed as though most of the path, the damage path, goes right through the heart of Joplin. In fact, the hospital here, at St. John's Hospital, one of the two we have, appears to have taken a direct hit from this. They're actually evacuating the hospital at the moment. They set up a mobile triage unit at memorial hall, one of our facilities here in Joplin.

LEMON: Chad Myers, you got -- you have some questions for Ray?

MYERS: Ray, we did hear this tornado was on the ground for a very long time and I know you were tracking it as well. Any idea what the size was? What the potential wind speed was?

I've seen -- I assume you've seen pictures. What are you seeing?

FOREMAN: Yes, we can actually get some video on our tower cam. We can actually see the damage path. And it appears to be anywhere from a half to three-quarters of a mile wide at times. And it went from one end of the city all the way to the other end of the city. Again, it was in a populated area in high traffic time on Range Line. Unfortunately, we do have some reports of fatalities here in the Joplin and Jasper County area.

MYERS: We know that this was a major tornado. This was obviously something in the F-3 or greater category. The damage that you've seen, can you describe it?

FOREMAN: Yes. We've had numerous vehicles picked up and thrown into houses. The hospitals, I mentioned, they took a direct hit. It looks like one entire wall that was all glass is completely gone. We have numerous homes that are completely destroyed.

We're talking about an area -- a path that's three-quarters of a mile wide and may extend 10 to 15 miles right through the heart of Joplin.

Also, you were trying to get an idea of scope of what this was like. The tornado that actually hit St. John's Hospital, some of the debris was picked up there. And in Dade County, which has about 70 miles away, people were finding x-rays from St. John's Hospital in their driveway.

LEMON: Oh, my gosh.

FOREMAN: So, this was a very large tornado. We actually have tornado warnings ongoing right now, but they are south of the Joplin area.

JERAS: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that, Ray.

LEMON: Go ahead, Jacqui.

JERAS: What can you tell us about the warning system that you have there in Joplin? Do you have sirens? And how much time did people have in that area to take cover?

FOREMAN: I would say on average in the Joplin area, most people had at least 15 minutes of warning. The warning was issued before the tornado formed, we actually started seeing the rotation on Doppler. So, we were able to issue the warning.

But within minutes of issuing that -- that's when it actually came together, just on the very western outskirts of Joplin. As I mentioned, it went from one end of the town to the other.

JERAS: And are there sirens there, Ray?

FOREMAN: Yes, yes. That's something you almost cannot live without in this part of the country.

JERAS: And do most people have basements or shelters to go to as well?

FOREMAN: Unfortunately, not. And we had a particularly dangerous tornado several years ago, just south of Joplin, and I think that sparked the interest in people getting tornado shelters. These are for people who live in mobile homes. It's a concrete shelter, that's their place to hide.

LEMON: Hey, Ray, can I ask you a question -- you can hear --

FOREMAN: Yes, I'm hearing sirens.

LEMON: Yes, Ray. So, where are you?

FOREMAN: I'm not sure where the siren sound came from. I'm actually in our newsroom right now. We're putting together --

LEMON: It must be from Steve Polley, who is the storm chaser, who we have on the other line as well. Ray --

FOREMAN: Now, I can tell you, anywhere around Joplin right now, you're going to hearing sirens. They've asked people to stop using water. There are numerous fires all the way from 20th Street to one of our busiest intersections. That they're trying to run out and they're running out of water pressure. So, they've asked everyone at home to stop using water. Everyone for the city has been asked to report and start taking care of damage and, of course, the injured.

JERAS: Any idea what percentage of the town --

LEMON: Hey, Jacqui, standby. There's a new video. We want to say this video is from Steve Polley, the storm chaser that we have. This is the first video that we have in.

Steve Polley said he was traveling on I-44 when this thing came through. And he said he saw a tractor trailer on their sides.

Steve, are you still with us?

POLLEY: Yes, I am.

LEMON: Steve, so, we're looking at your video. Tell us -- I'm sure you're probably not in a position to see this. So, we're seeing you -- it's a building, looks like a gas station and cars turning around on the road and we're seeing signs down. Talk to us about what you experienced when you were shooting this?

POLLEY: Well, as we were coming in off the interstate, I-44, the actual interstate was blocked that's why we discontinued where we were going. We were trying to get ahead of this thing. So, we exited off on SS (ph) Highway. We pulled off there.

As we were trying to pull off there, we started seeing a lot of damage, several semis. The reason the interstate was shut down, there were semis laid over on their side. There were several off on the ramp that were laid over.

Several people up on the banks that were hurt, bleeding. You know, they were walking wounded, I guess -- best way to put that.

We pulled up there to that truck stop to compose ourselves and get out of the danger zone for a little bit, at which time we started to open the door, we heard a hissing sound, looked off to our left. Maybe 50 foot away, there was a large propane tank that was leaking propane. You could actually see the mist out of it. We obviously left

LEMON: Oh, my goodness. Steve, will you stand by?

And, Chad, and, Jacqui, stand by, because I'm interested to know what Chad and Jacqui think as experts when they look at this video. We're going to have more pictures. Our storm chaser is going to join us on the other side of the break, and Chad Myers and Jacqui Jeras as well -- what they think when they look at that new video coming into CNN.

Don't go anywhere. More to come here. More pictures coming in from Joplin, Missouri. New information after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right, breaking news here on CNN.

You're looking at a radar of very powerful system. I wanted to tell our viewers, I want to warn you about the video, this is some of the newest video coming in.

People are being called, quite honestly, you heard the meteorologist there in Joplin and also the storm chasers say the walking wounded.

In this video you're going to hear people screaming, what's going on, you're going to see their reaction and you're going to see the devastation in Joplin, Missouri. Some of these images of the web, roll it, Rob. Let's look at the first one.

(VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So, you saw the person there with a child and you saw the chaos. There's much more where that came from. We're getting these images in from Joplin where it's not a big media center, southwest part of the state. So it's in an isolated area.

So, the pictures will continue to stream in, so have you to continue to watch CNN. I want to tell you. We're on here because this is important information. This system is not over yet.

Before I get to our meteorologists, I want to go to Steve Polley's video. He's on the phone with us. He's a storm chaser. Also new images. Roll it, Rob.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it is, 71. That's where we want to get.

LEMON (voice-over): OK, so there you have it. Those are some of the newest images. More coming in. Steve Polley, the man who shot that video. He's a storm chaser. He joins us now.

Steve, I want you to explain to us what was happened. You said you heard a hissing sound and it was a propane tank that was leaking, spewing propane out.

After we talk to you, I want to go to our meteorologists and get what they think when they see this video. Talk to me, Steve.

STEVE POLLEY (via telephone): OK, well, what we actually saw -- hello?

LEMON: Yes, go ahead, Steve.

POLLEY: OK. What we actually saw when we got off the interstate, we had to get off the interstate because of the traffic was at a standstill. There were semis laid over, both lanes. We could to longer progress through the interstate. We got off on the exit ramp.

We pulled up near this Flying J truck stop just to kind of get our bearings, figure out what the next plan of -- you know, we were actually going to do at this point. Once we pulled over, we opened the window for just a second.

We heard a hissing sound. I looked over and I could actually see it coming out of this large propane tank I guess they fill, you know, propane vehicles with.

LEMON: Yes. I'm being told, too, you mentioned I-44 that you were on the interstate, closed because of damage in that area. A lot of people were having to exit the interstate. You said it came out of nowhere.

Especially if you're driving, you may just drive into this system. So, Jacqui, as you're looking at this, can you learn anything? Can you see anything that might tell us what happened, the strength of this thing?

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST (voice-over): Well, you know, you really have to look at buildings to get a better handle on just how massive and how large this tornado was. Some of the -- there you can see some trees down, power lines down.

You know, a weak tornado will cause that kind of a damage, but some of the video I saw earlier that showed homes that were just leveled and buildings that were destroyed, I think, Chad said this earlier, he was saying this was likely an EF-3 or stronger.

That's what we would call a major tornado, winds around 150, maybe 165 miles per hour. You know, the weather service will come in and they'll look at all the damage and find the worst of the damage and get an estimated rating on that. It's hard to look at a tornado, a wedge-sized tornado, but when you're talking about a quarter of a mile to -- or three-quarters of a mile wide, I believe that's what ray foreman the meteorologist there in Joplin said.

That the path was probably a half a mile to three-quarters of a mile wide, we could be talking EF-4 maybe more potentially with this thing so, you know, we saw what happened in Alabama back in April 27th and this may be very well end up being on par with that in items of such a large tornado and such a destructive tornado.

LEMON: Chad Myers, are you standing still? Can you see air?

CHAR MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST (via telephone): Yes, sir.

LEMONS: Yes, OK. Chad, I want to you look at this new video that's just coming in. I want your assessment. Again, we want to warn you, this is unedited video and it's -- some of it is coming off the web. Take a look, viewers and Chad, then we'll talk.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEMONS: OK, there, Chad, you see some buildings there, what were buildings now it's just rubble. Does it give you an idea of the strength of this thing?

MYERS: It does and the video that we just watched was significantly different from the video of that Flying J truck stop. I don't believe Steve, the storm chaser, ever got to that damage that we were seeing right there.

He was unable to get there because interstate was closed. What I see there, and although it's grainy images and it's a little shaky, there should have been homes there. At one point in time there were one and two-story homes, where all you saw was just rubble that was flattened to the ground and a few, looked like, twigs sticking up.

Those were large trees that also used to be there and this is what we're going to get a feel for as the video comes in. This is a dangerous storm. Still is in some spots because it isn't even done rotating to the south and southeast of Springfield. In an hour or maybe less for St. Louis, there are storms headed your way.

Not with major tornadoes attached, but it's still possible. We are still in that type of atmosphere for the rest of the night. There are homes on that video just gone, leveled. The buildings are missing. This is the damage that I had described to me and that I've been reading about on the internet.

Where when we hear homes missing, buildings gone, then all of a sudden you're in a completely different category from a small rope tornado that dances along the plains to a storm that stay on the ground for a very long time. We had a major tornado, at least 150 miles per hour and at some spots in its lifetime greater, rolled right through a town of between 50 in downtown to 150,000 people.

We will see damage, we will see devastation like we saw in Tuscaloosa as this video keeps coming in, Don. The later we get into the day, the more video that's going to come in, it's not going to look like this anymore where power lines are still standing and power poles are still standing.

We'll get to a point where video comes in that everything is leveled. That video is out there. We're getting I-Reports as well. Please don't put yourself in any danger. If you would like to send a I- Report in, please do. If you're walking around out in Joplin, Missouri, there are boards with nails everywhere.

Some of the most devastating injuries in a hurricane sometimes, if everybody's staying inside, is when you take off roofs, and all of a sudden nails and shingles are flying around, and laying about.

People come out after the hurricane or the tornado and they're walking around and they don't realize these nails are out there. More people get injured sometimes after an event than before the event, but this is such a devastating event.

That there are homes in the distance of that video that don't exist anymore, Don and we're going to be on the air with this for quite some time. This is a big event.

LEMON: Yes. Chad, I want to say, I ireport@cnn.com. Chad, sadly, I know you're right because sometimes we don't find the damage for days, especially when it's areas that are not highly concentrated with media when it's not near big cities.

We end up days later finding just areas that are devastated. Meteorologists Chad Myers and Jacqui Jeras, stand by. Steve Polley who took some of that video, he is a storm chaser. On the other side of the break, I want you to tell me what you thought, if you thought you were going to make it out of this thing alive.

But hold that thought. I'm Don Lemon reporting from Los Angeles, Joplin, Missouri, and the people in the surrounding area really dealing with devastation right now. Many there are being called the walking wounded. We're following the devastation in Missouri here on CNN Breaking News.

Don't go anywhere, we're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right, breaking news. We know it's bad, but we don't know how bad it is. There are reports. I'm just saying there are reports, of up to 20, if not more, people who have died because of a tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri.

The number of injuries unknown right now and it is bad and sadly, new pictures are coming in. We expect them more to come in and it to get worst.

First up, video that we're getting from chasetv.com, just to show you, to give you a glimpse of how horrible, chasertv.com. Chasertv.com. Go ahead, Rob, roll it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: All right, so, again, look at that. I mean, just buildings and homes torn to smithereens someone who lives in the area and has seen this damage close up and survived this tornado, Bethany Scutti.

Bethany lives about 10 miles away, married with kids, she and her husband and her kids got to safety somehow. Now she has made it to St. John's Hospital.

We want to say that St. John's Hospital being evacuated because it was hit. They're setting up a sort of satellite mobile facility to deal with patients. Bethany, are you with us?

BETHANY SCUTTI (via telephone): Yes, I am.

LEMON: So, explain to us -- I know you're at the hospital now. You're about to --

SCUTTI: I am walking -- I can finally see the hospital. I finally had to park and walk because it is just a mess. There are trees everywhere, power lines. They finally got it to where only nurses and doctors could get through. I parked and I'm walking up behind the hospital now.

LEMON: So, Bethany, when this went through, what did you do? Did you go to shelter? Did you go in a basement? What happened?

SCUTTI: We did. I was in Carl Junction, northwest of Joplin and we went down in our basement.

LEMON: Bethany, stand by. It's really loud where you are. I'll just tell our viewers, Bethany is getting close to a hospital that's been severely damaged by this tornado. So, Bethany, tell me, you were at home, what time it was, what you heard, who was with you and what you did?

SCUTTI: Well, I'm having a hard time hearing you. I've got ambulances passing by. I think you were asking how it went when I was at home. I'm going to stop talking for just a second as this ambulance passes by.

We were at home in Carl Junction and heard there was a tornado warning so we went downstairs. My husband and two kids and I went downstairs in our basement. The hail was coming down really hard, really loud.

So, we just kind of waited it out down there, but in the meantime we were looking at Facebook, looking at the weather channel, on our phones. And then we heard there was a confirmed tornado on the ground in Joplin and then --

LEMON: So now you --

SCUTTI: And panic started coming through.

LEMON: OK. Explain the damage. So once you got out -- once you went to safety, right? Did you hear it coming through or did you see it?

SCUTTI: We could not hear it in Carl Junction, no. I didn't hear it.

LEMON: So, once you got out, there was no damage to your home, was it?

SCUTTI: No, no damage to my home, no. Wow, I am walking up past a pool now that is completely destroyed. It had slides and everything around it before. I'll see if I can snap a photo for you in a minute, but I'm still getting closer and closer to the hospital and it's looking pretty bad.

LEMON: So, as you made your way from your house and then about 10 miles or so, whatever it is to this hospital, tell us what you saw on the way.

SCUTTI: Well, at first there wasn't much of anything, but as I got closer to Joplin, the traffic started getting really congested. As I turned down the side streets to go towards the hospital, there were lots of overturned trees, huge tree, laying on their sides, laying on houses, people out in the street crying and downed power lines.

So I went as far as I could get down one street and had to turn around because there were too many trees and power lines in the way and I had to find another route. But there are lots and lots of people out walking around, people looking for people to help.

And school buses have been passing empty me on the way to the hospital. I heard there's a triage center set up at Joplin's Memorial Hall. My guess is they're picking up people to take them to the triage center.

LEMON: OK, so Bethany, I want you to standby. I understand Bethany has friends who are doctors and nurses working at that hospital, St. John's Hospital, very heavily damaged by this tornado that went through Joplin, Missouri. She's on her way to the hospital, very close, walking through a neighborhood now.

I want to hear from you, Bethany, what you're seeing once you get to that hospital, because this is a huge concern. If there are patients there who may not be being attended to. We also heard of a fire as well at the hospital. I want to see if that's going on.

Bethany Scutti is there at the hospital for us. She's going to walk us through it in just moments. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it is.

LEMON: Hi, breaking news. That is a scene out of Joplin, Missouri. As short time ago, a powerful tornado leveled a big part chunk of that city and some of the worst damage is sadly at the St. John's Hospital and the surrounding neighborhood. Almost nothing is standing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: We have an I-Reporter on the ground. Her name is Bethany Scutti. We'll get to her in just moments. She's at the hospital at least making her way. But our Jacqui Jeras has some new information. Jacqui.

JERAS: Yes, I've been checking in with some of our affiliates around the area in KATV in Oklahoma is reporting there are 24 fatalities now in Joplin from this tornado. They are also telling us that about 100 homes and businesses at least have been destroyed and impacted by this.

More information on the hospital, which was damaged, they are reporting chunks of the building have been taken out and that many of the windows have been blown out and some of those injuries that we've been talking about as well are from patients at that hospital.

They say ambulances are lining the streets and rescue officials are having a hard time. People may be trapped inside the Wal-Mart and the Lowe's building here, and they are saying it's a very difficult tornado to see as well.

That it was wrapped in rain, Don. So those warnings were out there, but it was a hard thing for these people to see. New information continues to trickle in. As many as 24 people now may have been killed in this tornado.

LEMON: Exactly, we're going to go to that hospital. Our I-reporter Bethany Scutti is there and we'll get an update from her after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right, breaking news here at CNN. Joplin, Missouri suffering the devastation right now of a very powerful tornado. Our I-Reporter Bethany Scutti is at a hospital that was hit by this tornado. Bethany, what are you seeing on the ground?

Bethany, are you there? OK. Bethany Scutti will join us in just a bit. She's making her way to the hospital and they are having obviously problems with cell phone service because of what happened.

I want to bring in Steve Polley now who is the storm chaser who shot some of the video that came in. Steve, I want you to go out and be safe and get more video, but as you were going through this, did you think you were going to make it out?

POLLEY: Well, it was kind of touch and go there for a little bit once we get on the interstate there and was trying to exit there on the ramp. We saw so much devastation that we were trying to find our way through it.

And try to get through harm's way and allow the emergency vehicle to get in there and where they need to be. Once we got up there that probably the scariest moment really was once we got up there to the Flying J truck stop and we found the propane tank actually venting itself.

LEMON: OK, thank you, Steve Polley. Steve, listen, if you can get more video, we would appreciate it, but we want you to be safe and we thank you for joining us. Listen, I want to tell our viewers it's really -- we're following some breaking news here on CNN about the devastation that's happening in Joplin, Missouri.