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THE SITUATION ROOM

Massive Snowstorm; Interview With Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray

Aired February 13, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The idea was, I was trying to buy some roses for my wife. And I had planned to surprise her with these 100 roses. I would assume they would have been open by now getting ready for the big day, which is tomorrow.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It may be a shock to the heart, but Mother Nature's to blame.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just asking you to kind of cooperate with us. We don't have any control over the weather.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: Now, many florists that we talked to today, Wolf, said that they got about 15 percent of their orders out the door early before Valentine's Day, but the not-so-rosy picture, Wolf, is that many people will still get their roses late Saturday or even later.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Sunlen, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news. The death toll climbs as a major snowstorm buries vast stretches of the Northeast, leaving more than a million people without power. And treacherous driving conditions are about to get worse tonight. Air travel is crippled by thousands of new flight cancellations and the impact is rippling at passengers all across the country. And the storm has shut down the federal government, with the nation's capital virtually paralyzed. I will get the latest information this hour from the mayor of Washington, D.C.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news this hour, the snow emergency unfolding right now across the Northeastern United States. One-third of Americans are being impacted as this powerful storm plows up the East Coast and this is not over yet.

Millions of people will see more snow tonight and the dangerous and deadly conditions could last for days. At least 13 deaths are now blamed on the severe weather, including a pregnant woman struck and killed by a snowplow in New York City. More than one million people are without power, many of them shivering through brutally cold temperatures.

And air travel has ground to a -- nearly to a halt with 6,000 more flights canceled today and almost 10,000 total since yesterday.

Our correspondents are covering all angles. They're live across the Northeast in some of the hardest-hit areas.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

BLITZER: I want to talk to Brian Todd right now. He and his crew have been spending all day driving through some of the worst conditions.

All right, Brian, where are you now and what are you seeing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're just north of Washington, D.C., south of Baltimore. We just came upon an accident. I'm going to get out of the vehicle and see if this woman can talk to us. She's dealing with emergency responders right now.

We have three cameras here able to capture some of this. We have a dash-cam I'm talking to right now, coming out of the vehicle. This is the woman's car over here, picking it up with our photojournalist Oliver Janney on his camera, going down here.

This woman is Paula Trotta. She just spun out. Her car was driving northbound, spun out, now facing southbound.

Paula, do you have a second? OK. Come on over here, if you can. She spun out going northbound. I believe, Paula, did you say there was some kind of a truck that caused this?

PAULA TROTTA, TRAVELER: Yes, a truck came up next to me, splashed on to my windshield, so I put the wipers on the higher mode to try to clear the windshield, and the car started fishtailing. And once it started fishtailing, I spun around, and next thing you know I'm in a big old ditch.

TODD: You're OK, though?

TROTTA: Yes, I'm OK. I didn't hit anybody else, any other cars or -- I didn't get hurt.

TODD: OK. Well, best of luck.

TROTTA: Knocked my whole front bumper off.

TODD: Right. Best of luck.

TROTTA: And the back end is a mess.

TODD: All right. As you deal with some of the responders here, good luck, Paula, getting out of this.

You can see the whole front of her car, Wolf, was sheered off. This is some of the conditions we're dealing with. It's getting worse on the 95 Corridor right now.

BLITZER: People should stay off that corridor, stay off a lot of the roads up in the Northeast.

All right, Brian, thank you.

The storm has forced airlines to cancel almost 10,000 flights over the past 48 hours. And the ripple effect is being felt all across the United States.

CNN's Rene Marsh is over at Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, D.C.

It's been closed at least part of the day, as has Washington Dulles. What's happening there now, Rene?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, we're out here on the airfield.

We can tell you there is some activity, some good news, which is just about an hour ago they reopened the runways. But all day, we have been here, been here for about nine hours. And this is all we have been seeing all day, just airplanes just sitting there, not moving. The good news is, that is changing, and we are starting to see airplanes move and taxi, although this is a slow, slow process. But it's progress.

And that's good here. Again, here at Reagan National Airport, the runways and taxiways, they were shut down since midnight. And that's the reason why. You see those trucks in the distance? They're all hauling away snow. Snow is the big issue and the big reason why they had to shut down the runways, just too much of it, not only on the runways, but also on the taxiways.

We spent a lot of time inside the airport operations center, where they were monitoring everything, down to the asphalt to see whether if a plane landed on this asphalt, would it skid, would it be able to land safely? Take a look at what some of the factors were when deciding that they needed to shut down the runways. We spoke with the operations folks earlier today. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here's my problem right now. These are my two parallel taxiways. You can see I have got snow going right down the middle. What that's going to mean is when I get my airplanes off my runway, I can't transition between one taxiway to the next to get back into the gate.

MARSH: Where is that taxiway supposed to be?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This snow isn't supposed to be there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARSH: All right, so big picture here, Wolf, how does today stack up against recent years? Well, we had more than 6,000 cancellations, again, the worst this winter. However, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Irene, they had more than 7,000 cancellations. We're not there yet today, but, nonetheless, a very, very bad travel day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly has been, causing a lot of disruption for so many people out there. Rene, thank you.

Parts of the Southeast are reeling from the storm which barreled through yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without power, including a lot of them in South Carolina.

Eric Boomhower of South Carolina Electric and Gas is joining us now on the phone.

How many customers in terms of -- how many customers are without power in South Carolina right now, Eric?

ERIC BOOMHOWER, SOUTH CAROLINA ELECTRIC AND GAS: Wolf, right now we have just a little over 91,000 customers without service.

At one point, it was probably a little closer to 120,000. Certainly, this has been a major weather impact event for our system. It may be the biggest weather event that's hit us from a utility standpoint since Hurricane Hugo back in 1989. And, you know, we're dealing with a lot of accumulated ice in trees and branches getting into our power lines and it's having a big impact on our customers.

BLITZER: So, your customers, if you have 100,000 customers without power, that translates into well over 300,000 people, because if you have a family of three or four living in a house, that's a lot of people without power.

Do you have any idea how long this is going to go on for these folks?

BOOMHOWER: Well, it's hard to say for sure exactly how long it will last. There are a lot of different incidents that are contributing to those overall numbers.

I can tell you right now we have about 1,200 employees directly involved in responding to these challenges that we have. We also have 500-plus utility crews that have come in from out of state to assist with the efforts, and we certainly appreciate the assistance we're getting from our neighboring utilities.

BLITZER: Why has this massive outage occurred? What's the problem in South Carolina?

BOOMHOWER: I think it really comes down to ice. We have had a lot of accumulated ice in various parts of the state, reports of an inch-and-a-half or more of ice.

When you have that much frozen precipitation getting into the trees, what happens is, you start having branches and even whole trees coming down into the power lines. And, you know, there are a lot of trees in South Carolina. And so we're seeing a lot of challenges in different parts of the state because of that.

BLITZER: The key I guess down the road is to just make sure those power lines are underground, not above ground, right?

BOOMHOWER: Well, yes, it would be nice if that was -- if it was as easy as just saying let's put them all under ground. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other considerations, and not the least of which is how much it costs to do that, a significant challenge in that regard.

I think the state of North Carolina about 10 years ago went through a similar challenge and they looked at this very closely. And at the time, their regulators decided that it was just cost- prohibitive to try to take that entire distribution system and put it under ground. They thought it would result in substantial increases to customer rates in North Carolina.

I think they talked about a 125 percent increase to rates. So, we do try to put lines under ground where we can, but you can't do it everywhere.

BLITZER: One of the problems, big problem is a lot of people rely on electric power for their heat. If they lose that power and it is cold -- and it's cold in South Carolina right now -- what are they going to do? They could be without this kind of power or heat, what, for another week?

BOOMHOWER: Right.

You know, we actually started a couple days even before this storm hit. And, fortunately, we had some good signs that it was coming, and we started talking to our customers in advance about preparing for that possibility of being without heat or lights or electricity over an extended period of time, stocking up on blankets and things like prescription medicines and those type of things.

And it is definitely a challenging time for our customers and our entire state. And, you know, we appreciate what our customers are going through and we certainly appreciate their patience as we work to resolve these issues.

BLITZER: Eric Boomhower of South Carolina Electric and Gas, good luck, Eric. Good luck to all our friends in South Carolina.

BOOMHOWER: Thanks, Wolf. I appreciate that.

BLITZER: More breaking news ahead.

Standing by live, the mayor of Washington, D.C. We will talk about the storm, its impact in the nation's capital.

And we will also find out why some people are slamming the New York City mayor, the new one, Bill de Blasio, over a controversial storm decision today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Take a look at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He's shoveling the sidewalk outside his home in New York's Park Slope neighborhood.

Now he's getting pushback, though, for keeping the public schools open today, despite near blizzard conditions in parts of the city.

Our national correspondent, Deborah Feyerick, is working this part of the story for us.

What are people saying about the new mayor of New York, Deb?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot of people not happy.

It is raining right now. And this is just part of the complication of getting around the city. The schools were opened. But as of 4:00 today, there was only 45 percent attendance. That's still about half a million kids, but it doesn't deny the fact that the majority of parents kept their kids home today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK (voice-over): With snow and rain making driving and walking challenging, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his controversial choice to keep open the city's nearly 1,500 public schools.

BILL DE BLASIO (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: When you think about 1.1 million kid, so many families depend on the schools as a place for their kids to be during the day, a safe place, a place where they're not only taught, but they get nutrition and they're safe from the elements. So many families have to go to work.

FEYERICK: The decision underscored the reality for 75 percent of New York City's public school children, who qualify for food programs. Still, it met with sharp criticism from a number of public school parents who took to Facebook and Twitter, including NBC weatherman Al Roker, who emphasized the potential danger.

Quote: "Is it worth putting kids' safety at risk?"

The mayor responded.

DE BLASIO: It's a different thing to run a city than to give the weather on TV.

FEYERICK: Roker, covering the Olympics in Sochi, fired back: "Mr. Mayor, I could never run New York City, but I know when it's time to keep kids home from school," saying also -- quote -- "Talk about a bad prediction. Long-range de Blasio forecast, one term."

Up and down the East Coast from Georgia to Maryland and into Massachusetts, millions of students stayed home, as public schools were shut down in places like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina. The confusion in New York City was made even greater when Governor Andrew Cuomo included it as part of a state of emergency.

Quote: "New Yorkers should stay off of the roads and remain in their homes until the worst of the storm has passed" -- the worst, which hit hardest during the morning commute, passed by lunchtime. Rain followed, as did a hail of criticism, with this comment made by the New York City Schools chancellor seemingly out of touch, certainly with the weather.

CARMEN FARINA, NEW YORK CITY SCHOOLS CHANCELLOR: It has totally stopped snowing. It is absolutely a beautiful day out there right now.

FEYERICK: During the last major storm several weeks ago, schools remained open, and only 44 percent, less than half of all public students, showed up. Still, the mayor stuck to his choice, citing historical precedent.

DE BLASIO: Since 1978, I think our figures are, it has been, I think, 11 times -- I will check the facts, but about 11 times schools have been closed in that time frame. So it's a rarity and it's something we do not do lightly.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: For half a million city school children, they were in class today, the majority of parents keeping their kids out. For those kids, they will get an unexcused absence, weather and all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Deborah Feyerick, a little controversy in New York City right now.

We're continuing to follow the breaking news, round two from this major winter storm now hitting right here in Washington, D.C. Look at these live pictures from Capitol Hill. We are going to show you what's going on in the city.

We will also get the latest on the crisis. The mayor of Washington, D.C., Vincent Gray, he is walking into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Mayor, stand by. We're going to discuss what's going on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Following the breaking news here in the nation's capital, taking another fresh beating from the snow right now. It has claimed at least 13 lives. The federal government was shut down today. The snow emergency is by no means over yet.

CNN's Athena Jones is joining us now.

Athena, what are you seeing?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, we're here in Washington, D.C.'s biggest salt depot. This is where trucks have been rolling in, in and out all day starting last night, actually, as they're getting this work done to try to clear the roads and keep them clear.

You can see behind me these front-loaders will pick up the salt and deliver it to the trucks. They have managed to clear most of the major roads. They're still working on the secondary streets. And I should mention that Mayor Gray said that this city had 30,000 tons of salt on hand to deal with this storm. That's about the amount of three Eiffel Towers, the weight of three Eiffel Towers.

But Mayor Gray also said that they have now, with this storm, surpassed their snow removal budget for the year. That's a budget of $6.2 million. They have had to deploy 20 times so far this year. And so that budget is now taxed, maxed out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Athena, thank you.

Let's ask the mayor of Washington, D.C., what's going to happen. The mayor is here, Vincent Gray.

Mayor, you have got a lot going on, right? You got enough money to pay for this? You're maxed out.

VINCENT GRAY (D), MAYOR OF WASHINGTON, D.C.: We don't have a choice. We will find it.

You always have underspending in a budget of our size, which is between $10 billion and $11 billion. We will simply reprogram money to make sure we continue to get the snow off the streets.

BLITZER: I saw a story in Southeast Washington. A man was found covered in snow dead, and it's a mystery what happened. And the question my dad would have always said, how could this happen in the United States of America that they simply find someone dead on the street covered in snow?

GRAY: Yes, this apparently was -- and I'm still learning more about it myself.

This apparently was a man who had been a patient in St. Elizabeths, which is our mental health hospital. He apparently had wandered away from there several days ago, and we are still obviously learning more about this. And we will learn more about it in the days ahead.

But, again, we will find out what happened, why he was away from the hospital and how he wound up in these conditions.

BLITZER: What do you do? Because you drive around Washington, D.C., as you well know, within blocks of the White House, you always see homeless people on the sidewalks.

GRAY: Yes.

BLITZER: In a situation like that, what do you do with all those people who are simply freezing?

GRAY: Well, I have been out on the streets myself at night, Wolf. And one of the things that we did during this very cold winter that we have had, those -- the people who have mental health or substance abuse problems who won't come into the shelters, what we have done now is we have put out what we call warming buses, where the buses are located in places where people congregate on the streets.

And we have actually gotten several hundred homeless people to come and be on the buses who would not go into the shelters otherwise. We were out in one of the coldest nights, when the temperature was about six or eight degrees. We had buses out. We had almost 400 people who came and sat on the buses.

BLITZER: Yes. It's heartbreaking when you see this kind of...

(CROSSTALK)

GRAY: It is. It is.

BLITZER: What do you think about the grief that the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is getting for keeping schools in the five boroughs open today?

GRAY: Well, it's once again an affirmation that these jobs, no matter what you do, you are going to get criticism from somebody.

BLITZER: You shut the schools in D.C. today.

GRAY: I did. We shut the schools down because we erred on the side of caution.

I think Mayor de Blasio made a good point, with the fact that there are kids who otherwise might not get a meal or a full meal, a nutritional meal, if they don't go to school. So, you're making judgment calls at every step of the way. We made the judgment call to shut down the schools, just erring on the side of caution.

BLITZER: And that's your decision. You as mayor, you make that decision.

GRAY: That's right.

BLITZER: And tomorrow, it's a professional day, but the charter schools, you're keeping open.

GRAY: That's right.

Well, we don't have the choice. The charter schools will make that decision. But we will do that in concert with the leadership of the charter school movement. Again, we don't want to put kids in harm's way. So, with the traditional D.C. public schools, we decided to close them today.

Who knows what we would have done tomorrow, but we would evaluate tonight. That will be done in concert with the chancellor of our schools, as well as our...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is it true, though -- and we're out of time -- that if the schools are shut, a lot of these kids are not going to have a good meal?

GRAY: That's true. It's true. They won't have the quality of meal that they would have gotten in school. But then you have got to make a judgment call. Do we put them in harm's way?

And then you have got parents who are making decisions not to send to schools even when they're not open -- send them to schools.

BLITZER: In the end, the parents have to make that decision.

GRAY: That's right.

BLITZER: Hey, Mayor, good luck.

GRAY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I will be back tomorrow.