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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Ukraine; Tornado Emergency in Athens, Alabama; Deadly Tornadoes Rip Through Arkansas, Mississippi; New Sanctions Declared on Russia; Crisis in Ukraine; Reports of Multiple Tornadoes on Ground

Aired April 28, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: We're tracking new tornado sightings and warnings. As many as 24 million Americans are at risk for life-threatening storms. Right now, some neighborhoods already have been wiped out. We have correspondents and storm chasers in the danger zone right now.

Plus, this: exploding violence. Ukraine may be moving closer to an all-out war. The United States is now taking new action. And Russia is vowing what they call a painful response.

And the underwater search for Flight 370 is getting larger and more intense. Officials have revealed their new strategy, and one of the changes just went into effect.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, a tornado emergency.

This was new video just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Parts of Mississippi, they're in the bullseye. The storm is moving into Alabama. We have been getting new reports of twisters touching down, including one that's at least a mile-wide. The Tupelo, Mississippi, area, has been very hard-hit. Forecasters are now warning of a particularly dangerous situation across the South, moving into the Midwest with wave after wave of life-threatening storms.

At least 16 people have been killed within the past day alone. Our correspondents are in the danger zone. We're tracking every new tornado outbreak in the CNN Severe Weather Center.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

BLITZER: We have some dramatic video from Tupelo, Mississippi. A TV meteorologist and his crew , they had to evacuate while he was reporting on the air, reporting on the tornado. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have got to be in your tornado safe place. We're still on the air. This is a tornado emergency for Lee County. This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak. And this could be deadly. Let's go tower cam. There's a damaging tornado on the ground right now, a significant tornado touchdown.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And then he ran for cover like everyone else. More powerful images from the Tupelo area coming in as well. Take a look at this clip from Mississippi TV station.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is video from Tupelo right now, and maybe Dave and Michael can help us with this. Is this a wall cloud? Or would this be an actual tornado? And, again, this is from the Tupelo area. We're not seeing debris in this.

We also had a picture from David Kenney earlier today of what he said was a wall cloud in the Yazoo County area. Look, now we're seeing hail. That's it. Now you can see the tornado form. You see the tip of that. That is a massive tornado, it looks like, guys.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: A ferocious storm system is heading east, but parts of Alabama right now at risk.

Brian Todd is hunkered down with emergency officials in Birmingham, Alabama.

What's the latest there, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're inside the emergency operation center for Jefferson County. This covers Birmingham and 34 other cities in this area. They're bracing for the same line of storms which is entering Alabama now. Two counties just west of here have got a tornado warning. It's coming.

These are fire, public works and law enforcement officials right here coordinating with others like them in the general area. They're monitoring that track of storms on the map right there. You can see that track is coming right toward where Birmingham is. Birmingham is the gray spotted area in the middle. These storms are coming right here. They're also monitoring road conditions. They're bracing for this line of storms.

I'm here with Allen Kniphfer. He's the emergency management director for Jefferson County.

Allen, what are telling people right now to do as this approaches?

ALLEN KNIPHFER, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DIRECTOR, JEFFERSON COUNTY, ALABAMA: Make sure you have a safety plan. Make sure you are ready to go to your place of safety when the warning comes. Have a helmet, have a portable radio, have a battery, flashlight and make sure you have a safety plan in a place that's safe for you to go.

TODD: What's the most common mistake people make in these situations?

KNIPHFER: They run outside and want to see the storm. They don't heed the warning. They don't go to their place of safety.

TODD: All right, Allen, thanks very much. Good luck throughout the night as you monitor this storm. Thanks very much.

Wolf, we're told schools have closed early in this general area of Alabama. Courts have shut down. They're telling people to get off the roads right now. They say -- I just spoke with the National Weather Service official. He said the roadways are the worst place to be and if you're on the roads anywhere around Birmingham, Northwest Alabama, get off and get to a save place.

They're also telling people, Wolf, if you live in a manufactured home like a mobile home, get out of it, get to a more sturdy structure.

BLITZER: Good advice, Brian. We will get back to you.

I want to go to Jeremy Holmes right now and he's a storm chaser in the tornado's path in Athens, Alabama.

Jeremy, what are you seeing now?

JEREMY HOLMES, STORM CHASER: Right now, I have heavy rotation off to my West. I'm just to the east of Athens right now. It's very rain- wrapped what I have been seeing.

But according to radar, I should be looking at a very violent tornado any time now. Visibility is very hard here at the moment. You have got heavy rain, almost foggy conditions, trees and bad terrain. So, it's hard to see. But according to what I'm seeing on radar, any second I should be seeing a very violent tornado.

BLITZER: Is it going to touch down based on what you see over there in a rural area or in a more urban area?

HOLMES: It looks like probably west of Athens, where I was earlier when I was on the storm earlier. It's fairly heavy populated. Over toward 65, it gets a little more sparsely populated. I'm on the east side of 65 right now. And there's homes and businesses here, but it's not densely populated, but there's definitely people at risk. There are still people out on the road right now.

BLITZER: All tornadoes are devastating, but does this one seem to be particularly powerful?

HOLMES: It definitely seems to be. I mean, from the radar signature right now, I'm actually starting to see some rotating rain currents. It's got to be really close.

May have to dive south a little bit to stay safe here. I would say it's got to be a strong tornado just by radar signature. but, as of yet, I can't confirm, but there's -- I would say there's probably something definitely on the ground.

BLITZER: Is this the first one you have seen today, Jeremy?

HOLMES: Yes, it is. I was on the same storm system over in Tupelo and I could not get a view of it. Same scenario, very rain-wrapped system. And I know it did heavy damage over there. I just said, kept going east out of its path. I couldn't get any view in the trees and I didn't want to get run over. Very hard to chase in this part of the country. Very dangerous situation.

BLITZER: You're a professional storm chaser. So are you heading toward the storm right now? Or are you driving away from it?

HOLMES: No, right now, I'm driving south a little bit because I was seeing rotating rain curtains and didn't want to get into the circulation. But right now it looks like it's coming basically probably to my north-northwest it will pass me right now.

BLITZER: Be careful over there.

HOLMES: At the moment, I'm driving. I'm just going to sit and watch it pass me here. It's moving very fast.

BLITZER: Be careful, Jeremy. We will check back with you. Jeremy Holmes is a storm chaser and he's just outside of Athens, Alabama.

Martin Savidge is joining us now.

I think you're close to Tupelo. Is that where you are in Mississippi, Martin?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we are, Wolf. We're in Tupelo outright. We have been cruising through various neighborhoods that have suffered some damage. Trees uprooted. Homes suffering roof damage. Power lines down.

The biggest problem right now, Wolf, is just trying to navigate. Most of the major arteries are clogged with traffic primarily because of two things. Trees came down with the high winds and the tornado, and also because you just have a lot of people that have come out to try to see if they can help or trying to get home to areas that have been heavily damaged and they simply can't get into the neighborhoods.

We have seen emergency crews out and about. Police are trying to control the traffic, but right now, it's still immediately in the aftermath. So there's a great sense of trying to figure out where are the worst-hit areas, where is the need greatest? We have actually seen -- I saw one guy being transported in the back of an open pickup truck.

It appeared he'd suffered some kind of shoulder injury. We do know there are injuries and we do know there is damage. But trying to get to the hardest hit areas such as around the mall of Tupelo, that's been extremely difficult for us. We continue to try to navigate through side streets to do it.

BLITZER: And we're looking at live pictures from your vehicle as you're doing that. I want you to be really careful over there. How far are you from that mall, that devastated area? The governor of Mississippi spoke about it when we interviewed him in the last hour or so. How far are you from that area? SAVIDGE: It's just literally a mile.

BLITZER: I think we have lost our connection with Martin Savidge. It's obviously totally understandable. He's driving in a devastated area in Tupelo. He's heading toward that mall that was apparently devastated. Once he gets there, we will try to reconnect with him. We heard from the governor. This is an awful, awful situation.

Let's continue our breaking news coverage. The scene of the tornado devastation in Arkansas, where two children are among the dead.

CNN's George Howell is joining us from Vilonia, Arkansas right now.

George, it was awful what happened in the area where you are.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, what Martin's dealing with right now, the storm he's driving through, this community, they dealt with it just the other day in full force.

You look at a truck here that is mangled. You look over here and you can see that there are power poles that were knocked over. Jordan, if we can pan out there. You can see there are cars, trucks, a semitruck just tossed over like toys and back there an entire community that was destroyed.

And now we see people digging through the debris.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL (voice-over): It happened just as the sun went down. A tornado ripped through the tiny town of Vilonia, Arkansas, just north of Little Rock, leaving behind a path of widespread destruction. Sirens sounded and people ran for shelter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was huge. It was by far the biggest one I have ever seen. And not that I have seen that many, but, yes, it was just a huge black cloud.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then it just popped back up real quick and then I ran inside and about a minute, it was over. I come outside and what you see is what we have.

HOWELL: This drone video shows homes and businesses ripped from their foundations, snapped trees and debris in downtown Vilonia. The twister is the most powerful storm to hit the nation so far this year. At this hour, an intense search-and-rescue effort is under way in the hard-hit town.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a slow process because we have got people and dogs going through the rubble and trying to find whoever we can and whatever we can.

HOWELL: Crews are digging through debris trying to find survivors after Sunday's storm. But search efforts could be hampered. Another round of severe weather is possible. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They did some search-and-rescue efforts very quickly and carefully, yes, but this morning, they started a very thorough and deliberate concentrated search-and-rescue effort. That's going to go through most of the day today.

HOWELL: Nearly 18,000 homes and businesses were without power Monday in Arkansas, most of them in Faulkner County.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to experience gas leaks, a lot of power lines down. We do have power out for most of the city right now, but you can never be too safe.

HOWELL: Vilonia was still recovering from the last tornado, a deadly twister that hit almost exactly three years ago, killing four people in town. Many of the buildings destroyed last night had only recently been rebuilt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The really sad thing is that there's a lot of homes that were hit this time and demolished that were the exact same homes that had just been rebuilt from the last tornado.

HOWELL: George Howell, CNN, Vilonia, Arkansas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: So what we're watching right now, people going through, these crews digging through the debris. Folks here are keeping an eye on the storms just east of us, because they are hoping that they don't see the same damage, that they're spared the damage that we saw here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, George, thanks. We will check back with you as well. Devastating situation there in Arkansas.

We will have more of the breaking news coming up. We're following the tornadoes, the thunderstorms ripping across Mississippi, now Alabama. New images, new information coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. Our correspondents, they are standing by. They are all right in the middle of all of this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing the breaking news right now, horrible, horrible weather conditions, severe, severe storms, tornadoes ripping through Mississippi even as we speak right now. But they're moving elsewhere towards Alabama. They're also moving toward the Midwest, including in Illinois.

That's where we find storm chaser Ben McMillan.

Ben, what are you near Springfield, Illinois, right now?

BEN MCMILLAN, STORM CHASER: Wolf, yes, we're just leaving Springfield, heading east out of town, trying to stay ahead of this strong line of storms which is impacting the Saint Louis and Springfield area. BLITZER: Southern Illinois.

So tell us what you're seeing right now. These are live pictures you're showing our viewers.

MCMILLAN: We have had a lot of heavy rain, which is causing a lot of flooding on the roadways. We have had several motorists pulling over just because the visibility is getting very poor at times. No tornadoes yet in our area of the country. However, we're monitoring the storm system very closely if that does happen.

BLITZER: Have authorities in Illinois issued some formal alert, some warnings out there?

MCMILLAN: Yes. They're advising severe thunderstorm warnings right now, just letting people know about 60--to-70-mile-an-hour winds ahead of this system. That's been the main threat thus far.

BLITZER: We have been told that 1.4 million people in these areas are at high risk, 2.5 million are at moderate risk, 45 million are at slight risk areas as far as tornadoes are concerned. Do you have a sense of in southern Illinois how risky it is right now?

MCMILLAN: It's definitely not a good time of day to be out. Usually, the hours between 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on these storm days are just not a safe time to be out unless you have emergency business that requires you to be out on the roads.

BLITZER: Ben McMillan, we will check back with you. He's a storm chaser in southern Illinois right now. Ominous images.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

BLITZER: Once again, the breaking news this hour: Millions of people across the south, the Midwest, they are preparing now for very dangerous weather, widespread tornadoes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: "CROSSFIRE" won't be seen tonight so we can bring you more of our special coverage of the deadly tornado outbreak.

We're also following other breaking stories right now.

I want to go back right to Jennifer Gray at the CNN Severe Weather Center.

I know that more information is coming in, and it isn't good.

What's the latest, Jennifer?

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, this is a potentially deadly situation going on in northern Alabama.

We have a very strong storm that's pushing to the north and east. And it is producing a possible very large tornado, and it's possibly on the ground as we speak. So if you're in the path of this storm, you need to get to your safe spot immediately. Limestone and Madison counties in Northern Alabama. It's affecting Athens and Hazel Green.

Look at the proximity to Huntsville. This is just north of Huntsville, Alabama. This is a tornado emergency. It is 5:30 Central time. And folks are probably wanting to get home from work. Don't. Stay put. This is very, very dangerous. This is a life-or-death situation going on here in northern Alabama, so a tornado emergency. It looks like there could be a very large tornado on the ground.

We have been watching what we call velocity. It's the winds going toward and away from the radar. And this is continuing to track to the north and east. We're seeing these very strong cells continue to push at about 45 miles per hour, Wolf, so a very dangerous situation going on here, possibly a very large tornado on the ground as we speak. Stay very safe.

BLITZER: Yes. I hope folks find a safe area to go to. All right, Jennifer, we will get back to you.

I want to speak to an eyewitness.

Scott Peake is joining us on the phone. He saw a tornado on the ground in Starkville, Mississippi.

Scott, tell us what you saw.

SCOTT PEAKE, STORM CHASER (via phone): Hi. Well, I actually intercepted a tornado near the town of -- let's see here. Just southeast of Starkville. And tracked it into Louisville to the northeast and intercepted it there and got the tornado going through the town and had debris falling from the sky and had big tile swatches and everything. So it was definitely going through the town of Louisville.

BLITZER: How much damage did you see, Scott?

PEAKE: On the southeast corner of town, it was impassable. It was pretty devastating. There are some foundations that were completely wiped off from what I glanced at as I was trying to get around the downed trees, so it looked really bad.

BLITZER: How powerful did the storm seem to be?

PEAKE: This was a pretty violent tornado. I would say this tornado was probably at one point almost three quarters of a mile wide.

BLITZER: That's a pretty significant tornado. And what are you seeing now? Is it over with? Has it passed? Where are you?

PEAKE: Well, Wolf, I'm actually in Starkville at the moment. I am actually getting some gas because I tried to get gas in Louisville before the tornado came, and it knocked all the power out. So I was in danger of losing -- or running out of gas. So I had to take it up to Mayhew, that direction near Starkville to get gas.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen anything like this before, Scott?

PEAKE: Not in the southeast. I usually chase in the plains, in Kansas and Oklahoma. But seeing this in the southeast was just, just crazy. Just -- something I don't want to ever see.

BLITZER: It was an awful, awful situation. So where do you go next? What are you going to try to do?

BLITZER: Well, there's a tornado-warned storm just, I do believe it's -- well, actually, I think it's -- no, it's still there. It's heading toward Crawford, Mississippi, near Brooksville, and I'm going to try and re-intercept that storm as I come from the north. And try to intercept it safely.

BLITZER: Scott, hold on for a moment. Jennifer Gray is still with us. She's our severe weather meteorologist. Jennifer, you want to weigh in? Ask Scott a question?

GRAY: Yes. I know, Scott, we've had a couple of these tornado emergencies. We've had particularly dangerous situations the past two days. I just want you to reiterate how important it is for people to heed these warnings. Don't get on the roads. This is a very dangerous situation, life or death. Just because you guys are out chasing the storms, just kind of shed some light on how dangerous the situation is for today.

PEAKE: Right. Right. If you -- if you are at work and you're there already, stay there because that's -- more than likely if you're in a sturdy building, A large building, that's going to be better than trying to make it out going to your house. Because you're going to get caught out in. You can hydroplane and slide off the road. You know, and it's not just the tornadic storms but even hydroplaning. It's very dangerous.

So I would just stay where you are. If you're at home, take shelter. If you're at work, stay there until you have the all clear.

BLITZER: Right. Scott, I want you to be careful out there. Scott Peake is chasing this storm. We'll stay in close touch with you, Scott.

Jennifer, before I let you go, just update viewers who may be tuning in right now on the very latest we're getting.

GRAY: Yes, we've been talking about these very, very ferocious storms just in the northern part of Alabama.

I want to mention this -- this new warning that's popped up. And this is just on the north side of Jackson, Mississippi. One of the more populated areas, as we know. This tornado warning for Heinz and Madison county, affecting Madison and Ridgeland. This is in effect until 6:30 p.m. A very, very dangerous storm.

We also have one, as you can see, just on its heels, affecting Bolton and Edwards in the next couple of minutes. So if you are outside the Jackson, Mississippi, area, in the suburbs, you can see just outside, find your safe place. Another storm is headed straight for you.

So extremely dangerous, not only outside of Jackson, Mississippi, but outside of Huntsville, Alabama. We're seeing two very, very dangerous storms headed your way.

BLITZER: Very dangerous. And we know what happened in Arkansas yesterday. Today, Mississippi, heading towards Alabama. But you also say other states, including Iowa and Illinois, they should be bracing for tornadoes? Give us a sense of how widespread this extreme weather is moving.

GRAY: Yes. Absolutely. Let me show you. I'm going to zoom out. And we're seeing storms anywhere from Iowa, like you said, all the way down to portions of eastern Louisiana. And so, as these storms continue to track to the east, it is going to be an extremely volatile, extremely dangerous situation as we go through the overnight hours.

So this is a long line, and these storms are tracking at about 45, 50 miles per hour at times. That's why you get the warning, you've got to go. Very, very quickly. You can't wait any longer, because a lot of times just as you get the warning, it's right at your doorstep.

So be very, very careful. This is a dangerous situation. It will be going on throughout the nighttime hours. And when the sun goes down, when it becomes nighttime, you can't see these storms anymore, that's when it becomes crucial that you have your weather radio.

Here's that wide view that I was trying to get for you, Wolf. Look. See these severe storms, all the way, portions of Illinois stretching through Kentucky then we're seeing that line, that strong line stretching from southern Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, on into eastern Louisiana. Millions and millions of people affected by this and these are very, very dangerous. We saw what happened in Arkansas. We're unfortunately starting to see the same events unfold for Mississippi. We'll be with you, though, throughout the night. And we're going to be monitoring it until this comes to an end.

BLITZER: Potentially about 45 million people at risk right now across the country. Jennifer, we'll get back to you. We'll stay on top of this story.

Just ahead, new video information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll continue to monitor the very dangerous storms threatening millions of Americans now.

We'll also show you the terrifying images and bring you an update. We're tracking the storms.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Get back to the breaking tornado news in a few moments, but there's other important news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Obama administration trying to send a clear message to Russia by stepping up its sanctions against President Vladimir Putin's inner circle. But the violence on the ground in Ukraine is only worsening with more clashes in east after a deadly bombing earlier today.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is monitoring the situation. What's the latest?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, in making their case for the sanctions, administration officials have been frankly brutal in their rhetoric. They say that Russia has done, quote, "precisely nothing" to meet its obligations under the deal reached in Geneva earlier this month intended to deescalate the crisis. In fact, they accused Russia of continuing to spark unrest.

But clearly, it took some time, more time than expected to get these sanctions together in rough agreement with Europe. It's hard to distinguish them, in fact, from the earlier round of sanctions. But administration officials say it is just one step of many.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): With the crisis in Ukraine only growing more violent, today the Obama administration introduced new economic sanctions it says are designed to punish Russia for orchestrating it.

The sanctions focus on individuals tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including Dmitry Kozak, deputy foreign minister and head of Putin's 2004 presidential campaign. And Igor Sechin, president of Rosneft, Russia's leading oil company, also a close adviser to Putin.

Crucially, the sanctions also target nearly a dozen businesses tied to Gennady Timchenko, known as Putin's banker and believed to help manage the Russian president's vast personal wealth. The penalties do not, however, target Putin, himself.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally. The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he's engages in in Ukraine could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.

SCIUTTO: Notably absent from the new measures are some of Russia's most powerful businessmen and companies, including Gazprom, the natural gas giant that supplies Europe with most of its energy. Also absent for now, sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy. Those omissions led to sharp criticism from Capitol Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is basically a rehash of what's already occurred. So we've been pushing for a portion of sectoral sanctions, sanctions against some of the -- four of the largest banking institutions in Russia so that they would have an impact on the economy. We've ended up with this -- nothing more than a slap on the wrist approach today.

SCIUTTO: With 40,000 to 50,000 Russian troops still poised on the border, many see a stealth invasion already underway, with pro-Russian militants occupying entire towns. In one area, Russian pop music blaring as masked gunmen stand guard.

The militants also continue to hold European observers hostage, releasing just one for medical reasons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have no indication when we will be sent home to our countries and to see our families.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Sanctions on sectors will be held in reserve, say administration officials, in the event that Russian forces invade eastern Ukraine.

One official said that the administration does not want to use all its bullets at once while at the same time cautioning there is no single silver bullet to solve the crisis.

I spoke to a senior Ukrainian government official who told me the sanctions are, quote, "a very good step" but he hopes not the final step in deterring Russian actions in Ukraine.

And Wolf, as you know, Ukrainian officials, in fact, they're asking for bigger prices for Russia to pay economically, and they're also, as you've noted many times, asking for more significant military aid to push back this Russian advance.

BLITZER: Yes, they'd like weapons from the U.S. and other countries. They're not getting those weapons right now.

Jim, hold on for a moment. I want to get more on the violent clashes under way in Ukraine right now. CNN was on the scene as pro-Ukrainian marchers were stormed by pro-Russian militants armed with clubs and batons. Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon was there on the ground in eastern Ukraine for us.

Tell our viewers, Arwa, what you personally eye-witnessed?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, all of this unfolding in city of Donetsk where we are right now. And there is one thing that was painfully clear, and that is that the government in Kiev most certainly is not in charge here, and the police are either unwilling or incapable of reigning in the chaos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): Armed and menacing, the pro-Russian camp guaranteed that they are the absolute authority, violently beating those who want to see a united Ukraine. This was the scene just an hour earlier.

(on camera): There's an entire row of buses filled with police here. They say that they want to protect the population at this small pro- Ukrainian demonstration. There had been various reports on social media that the pro-Russian camp might try to stop them from demonstrating, might try to block them. So, naturally, there are security concerns and tensions have been rising, but those we've been talking to say that they need to come out especially at this critical junction and make sure that their voices are heard.

The crowds have just started moving to their next destination and there have already been various unconfirmed reports at this stage that the pro-Russian camp, a few hundred of them, might be moving in this direction as well.

The situation is rapidly escalating out of control. On that side, you have the pro-Russian camp with batons, possibly even some weapons in their hands. The police are trying to maintain a certain level of control over the situation, but they don't seem to be able to.

(voice-over): A few of the wounded were treated on site. The pro- Russians victorious as they marched back to the main administration building they control, with the riot police staying well away.

"We're just waiting until people's patience wears out, watching the spectacle that is being carried by a minority," Kennan (ph) says. "Set up with a chaos that shows no sign of letting up."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON: Wolf, the vast majority of people we're talking to say they simply want stability. Of course the big question at this stage is how that's going to come about.

BLITZER: A huge question. Arwa, thanks very much. Arwa Damon as always on the front lines for us.

Let's bring in some experts to discuss what's going on.

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, is with us, along with our military analyst, retired U.S. Major General James "Spider" Marks, and Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent, is still with us as well.

Do you think these sanctions, these ratcheted up U.S.-led sanctions, Ambassador, are really going to impact Putin?

STEVEN PIFER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Well, I think the sanctions will have some effect, but the expectation was that the sanctions were going to be more substantial. Certainly, when you look at what was being said by the administration last week, you would have expected maybe some sanctions on major Russian financial institutions and some other key individual.

BLITZER: You don't think these financial institutions that have been sanctions, these cronies of Putin are powerful voices in Russia?

PIFER: It has an impact and certainly you're going after somebody very close to Mr. Putin, but the banks that have been sanctioned earlier are small pocket banks. My guess is that the administration ratcheted back its plans because it doesn't want to get too far out in front of the Europeans. The Europeans have to find consensus among 28 countries so they're more cautious.

BLITZER: The Europeans are the ones that are going to be impacted if the Russians stop selling gas or oil to Europe, Germany, or some of the other countries, the price per gallon is going to go way up over there.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, they're the ones that have the most to lose. That's why as the ambassador indicated, they're the ones that are most cautious. And the United States and other nations can't gear up quickly enough to be an alternative to the gas and oil that's coming out of Russia.

BLITZER: The administration, though, does say they don't want to shoot all of their bullets right now. They're holding out for more if Putin doesn't back down.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. They're saying really the sector sanctions that are going to be most punishing that the red line for that, excuse me for using the term, is using Russian forces in numbers across the border in eastern Ukraine. But the criticism that they run into and I spoke to Senator Bob Corker today, is that the red line moves, it used to be the demand was to move the troops back from the border. Now the new one is, just don't come in.

You also hear criticism that by trying to seek so much unity with this group of 28 nations, that, in fact, the administration is negotiating down. Negotiating its leverage down and there's some who say, you know, the Europeans want to be led here. They want to be led rather than follow.

BLITZER: What do you say to that?

PIFER: I think it's very clear if you had a Russian military intervention with tens of thousands of troops in the eastern Ukraine, those circumstances you'd have major sanctions applied both by Washington and Europe. No question. But you now have a situation of a stealth invasion, Russian special forces operating and that makes it more difficult to mobilize the Europeans.

BLITZER: Any indication how many of these stealth forces, paramilitary Russian if you will, Russian citizens coming into Ukraine may be involved? We know some Ukrainians are sympathetic to the Russians obviously.

MARKS: Sure. I don't have a sense of the numbers. I would hazard to guess that our intelligence community does and has a pretty good sense of it. Let's not call them stealth. Let's not even call this asymmetric.

I mean, this is a form of warfare that's being instigated in east Ukraine, and the fact that we have so many Russian forces just across the border is really the provocation. I don't think we should, and I would hope that there's agreement here, I don't think we should wait for on invasion before we really get tough.

BLITZER: General, thanks very much for joining us. Ambassador, thanks to you. Jim, we're going to continue to monitor, obviously, this crisis, and it is a real crisis that's escalating in Ukraine. Just ahead, more of our breaking news coverage on the dangerous new tornado outbreak. A storm system is on the move right now. Get this -- not 45 million, but we're now told 50 million Americans could be at risk.

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BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news.

These tornados impacting not only Arkansas, but now Mississippi.

Therese Apel is joining us on the phone from Pearl, Mississippi. She's a reporter from "The Clarion Ledger."

What's the latest there, Therese? What are you seeing? What are you hearing?

THERESE APEL, THE CLARION LEDGER (via telephone): Well, at this point, Governor Phil Bryant just told us that today is the most active day for tornados in Mississippi history. We've had at least 23 tornado watches around the state and six confirmed tornados.

There have hundreds of homes destroyed in the Tupelo area, the Winston County area has also been really heavily hit, including the Winston Medical Center. There are earlier reports that it's got walls down and some gas leaks, so throughout the state right now, especially with more tornados coming, I'd say everybody's pretty shook up at this point.

BLITZER: I understand completely.

Any word from the governor or others and you're there at Pearl, at the emergency center, any word on casualties?

APEL: At this point, they are saying that both Winston County and Tupelo have mass causalities. However, they're not -- they have not confirmed any fatalities at this point. We have heard things through the grapevine, but nothing confirmed to this point as to whether or not there's actually any deaths.

BLITZER: And Tupelo was the hardest hit, that's what you've been hearing?

APEL: At this point I think that's where the bulk of the damage is supposed to be. They said there are homes destroyed, as well as businesses and multiple injuries there, and like I said, Winston County is also, I think, priority-wise, Tupelo and Winston County.

BLITZER: And what you're saying also is that a local hospital, what, in Louisville, Mississippi, that was badly damaged, as well?

APEL: Yes, from what I understand, it's got walls down and gas leaks. At this point, that's what they know from where we sit here in Pearl at the state emergency operations center.

BLITZER: It's called Louisville, not Louisville, is that right? APEL: Louisville in Mississippi.

BLITZER: Had they evacuated that hospital before the tornado hit the area, or was the hospital full of patients?

APEL: At this point, I don't know the answer to that. I would assume they would have been evacuating if they could, because we've been talking about this weather system coming in since, well, last week.

So I would hope they did, but I don't have confirmation of that.

BLITZER: All right. Therese Apel of "The Clarion-Ledger", joining us from Pearl, Mississippi, good luck to everyone in Mississippi. What an awful, awful situation.

It's not just Mississippi or Arkansas, it's also Alabama, that ferocious storm system now heading east. Parts of Alabama clearly are at risk.

Our own Brian Todd is hunkered down in Birmingham, Alabama.

What's the latest there, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are directly in the track of storms that just hit northeastern Mississippi. It's moving into Alabama. Already moved into Alabama. Here in Birmingham, the weather's getting worse, trees are starting to blow here, light skies behind me.

In contrast, over here, you can see these streets are almost abandoned. Skies getting darker here and darker still to the north as this storm moves to the northeast of us, sweeping past the Birmingham area, probably within the next few minutes.

One official with the National Weather Service told me some of these storms could be long-track tornados, meaning they could be on the ground 30 minutes or longer. Very, very damaging. People here in Birmingham are told get off the streets, hunker down. If you live in a manufactured home, get out of it, get to some sturdy shelter. So, that's what people seem to be doing now, Wolf. The streets here, not many people moving around.

And those who do are advised to get inside pretty soon. As you can see, the wind is starting to kick up here. We're feeling some rain a little bit. A tornado warning just north of here in Athens, Alabama, a short time ago. It is moving toward us very, very fast, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you have a safe area for you and the crew, Brian?

TODD: We do. There's a parking garage here to my right. We can actually show this to you, we can hunker down here if we have to. The Emergency Management Agency underground facility is right there. We can bang on the door and we think they'll let us in.

So, we've got a place to go. We're going to stay safe, but will also be out here monitoring the storms. BLITZER: Brian Todd, watching the situation for us, and it is an awful situation.

A major, major city like Birmingham, Alabama, potentially at risk right now. As we've been reporting, up to 50 million Americans potentially at risk in many of these southern states, not only Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, but also Kentucky, Illinois, as far north as Iowa itself. So we'll watch this story throughout the night unfolding here on CNN.

Remember, you can always follow us on twitter, you can tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitRoom. Be sure to join us again tomorrow in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You can always watch us live. You can certainly DVR the show so you won't miss a moment if that's what you want to do.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.