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At This Hour

Flash Flooding Leaves 21 Dead, 40 Missing In Tennessee; Taliban Issue Death Sentence For Afghan Translator's Brother; TX Lawmakers Hold Hearing On GOP-Backed Election Overhaul Bill. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 23, 2021 - 12:30   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: It was like a tidal wave that is how one woman describes the devastating flash floods that killed now 21 people in Tennessee. Among them, officials say seven-month-old twins. The water just sweeping people away, pushing homes right off their foundations, tossing cars like toys. CNN's Nick Valencia is with us from Humphreys County, Tennessee with the latest. Nick, what are you seeing there?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Kate, we've heard terms use like apocalyptic, devastating, catastrophic, and looking at the scenes behind me you can certainly understand why. I want you to walk with me and see for yourself just how bad things are. The force of the water came through, you know, with such force, that it's knocked down these brick buildings, these walls here on these low income housing complex which is one of the hardest hit areas here.

Eyewitnesses tell us that there were residents who were just simply caught off guard by how fast the water came through here. There's a creek right behind this housing complex that added to the ferocity of that water as it came through, people trying to get on top of their roofs and just didn't have enough time.

We understand according to eyewitnesses, some people were swept away by this water. We know that the search and rescue teams have come through this area marking them empty. But see behind me here this creek, the debris fields stretched for blocks and blocks.

And I don't know if you can make it out but just behind me here in those shrubs, there are residents, local volunteers that are adding to the first responders going through house to house to see if there's any signs of the missing. We know according to a family that came through here a little while ago that a 15-year-old, one of the local teams from the high school here is among the missing, she was actually with her sisters according to her.

And they were on top of a floating piece of furniture. And when that furniture gave way crashing into a tree, her sisters were able to cling on to a tree, but she, young Lily, was not able to hold on and she was swept under by that water.

[12:35:00] We spoke to the search and rescue crews. They're looking for her, along with at least 20 others who are still unaccounted for. Not only are they dealing with the leftover damage, but power is out here about 2,000 homes, you know, and this fire hydrant, it's just one of the, you know, one of the remnants of the calamity that happened through here over the weekend, 17 inches of rain when only six were expected.

They got a third of their yearly total in just about a 24-hour span. And they knew that the storms was coming -- a storm system was coming. But no one anticipated it to be this bad. Kate?

BOLDUAN: I mean, that story that you just told about the people on a floating piece of furniture is horrible. I mean, what do officials say they need at this point, because this is far from over, Nick?

VALENCIA: Yes, this is far from over. And it will continue for days, if not weeks ahead. They're asking for donations. You know, the Red Cross is here. We've also seen the Tennessee National Guard deployed to this area. There are communities around here that have come in to help to try to chip in, in the surrounding counties. They're asking for donations in Humphreys County.

But right now, it's really resources in terms of, you know, dollars. We understand the governor is considering declaring a state of emergency here and we can understand why just looking at the images behind me here. Kate?

BOLDUAN: I can't even believe some of the images that I'm seeing just like cars tossed around like they're like little toy cars. I mean, in homes, completely thrown off their foundation, and how fast it all came through. That's the worst part about it. Nick, thank you very much for your reporting, we'll stay close to this.

VALENCIA: You bet.

BOLDUAN: Still ahead for us, a death sentence from the Taliban, new reporting about the new threat facing Afghans who worked with U.S. forces and their families.



BOLDUAN: At this hour, another sign of how desperate the situation has become for Afghans after the fall of their country. According to letters obtained by CNN, the Taliban has sentenced the brother of an Afghan translator to death. The letters accuse him, the brother, of helping the U.S. and providing security for his brother who worked as an interpreter for American troops.

Now, I tell you that story and that reporting because our next guests understand just how urgent and dangerous this situation is for so many Afghans. While serving in Afghanistan, both of them work with a young interpreter who for his safety, we will call only, Alex (ph). Five years ago, Alex (ph) was able to get to the United States to start a new life. And now they are trying to help Alex (ph) save his family, which is still in the country.

Joining me now are these two great Americans. Aaron Marquez, he's an army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan and Tim Stringham, he's lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

Thank you both very much for being here. Aaron, there's a lot to Alex's (ph) story. But Alex (ph), I think for this moment, I think it's important for people to know that Alex (ph) is too scared to show his face right now. That is how dangerous the situation really is, fearful of what his work and him speaking out might mean for his family. What does he think is going to happen to them if they can't get out?

AARON MARQUEZ, AFGHANISTAN WAR VETERAN: That's right. It's a very dangerous time in Afghanistan right now for the families that worked with our troops over the last 20 years. I noticed recently, his brothers in Afghanistan were stopped and targeted and their cell phones searched. So our focus right now is doing everything possible to get his family to a safe country, whether that's our country or third party country.

BOLDUAN: And Tim, Alex (ph) and his family, they're really in something of like a visa limbo is how I'm trying -- I kind of think of it because of years long backlog, citizenship backlog, Alex (ph) hasn't yet obtained his U.S. citizenship, which is also means he can't technically sponsor his family to be brought to the United States until then, put another way, this is a just absolute process mess for you to try to get this family out. I mean, what is this like for you? How do you describe this?

TIM STRINGHAM, LIEUTENANT, UNITED STATES NAVY JAG CORPS: Well, there's two problems that a lot of these people have to go through. First is the bureaucracy to make sure they get visas. And a lot of these people actually qualify for two, three, or maybe even four visa programs. But even in the best of times, the immigration process is cumbersome, it's bureaucratic, and it's hard to navigate.

Even if we could get visas for these people, you know, CNN has been showing the chaos that's happening at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. A lot of these people are 10, 12 hours of driving away from that airport. Even if they could get visas, there's an enormous challenge to get out of the country.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. I mean, they -- you threaten life and limb even trying to get to the gate, which is then, you know, the chance of being turned away is just all the more horrible. I mean, Aaron, and this is now -- do you -- are you optimistic? How is Alex (ph) doing? How are you doing? I mean, you know, you see these images after serving two tours in Afghanistan, you see what's playing out overseas and in Kabul, and who even knows beyond because we don't have cameras there to show it quite honestly. And Alex (ph) is also watching this. What is he hearing from his family now and what's it like for you to see this?

MARQUEZ: You know, frankly, it's overwhelming. I think it's overwhelming for, you know, so many veterans, not just Tim and I, and so many other, you know, families in the same position that Alex's (ph) family is facing. He not only has his brothers but he has two sisters as well. One of his sisters is an attorney. She's represented women in over 20 domestic violence and divorce cases in Afghanistan. She also is being targeted by the Taliban and has months ago stopped working as an attorney.


So really, we are optimistic. We know that there are opportunities to continue fighting. We've contacted our senator's office here in Arizona. We've contacted multiple channels to get his family on list to get call to the airport. But we also know over the long term, this will be a long term fight to get them humanitarian parole or some other status bringing them to the United States.

BOLDUAN: Tim, if you could, if there's one, we've heard just over and over again, I just had a member of Congress on who was talking about the problem, the visa problem, the process problems, the bureaucratic problem that even he has the families that are trying to get out and get to the gate, if there's a change you can make, if you can break through one element of the bureaucratic red tape, if you could make an appeal to the Biden administration or the U.S. embassy staff on the ground who are handling this, what would you say to them to try to, I don't know, from your perspective, move this along or make this right?

STRINGHAM: Well, I think they're moving in the right direction. I'm not sure that they're moving fast enough. There is a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to declare in a humanitarian crisis and grant humanitarian parole for people. What they should be doing is they shouldn't be focusing on trying to vet people and complete their immigration process right now. They need to expedite the process by granting humanitarian parole, which means moving people outside of Afghanistan and then sorting them.

So one of the problems that we're having now is talking to people even in Kabul, they're getting all the way to the gate, and then being told, hey, we're not accepting your class of visa yet come on a later date. That's extremely problematic for people who are in the country. And it's creating a huge security concern for the soldiers who are doing a great job trying to hold the line in there in Kabul. They need to mitigate the crisis by emptying the airport as quickly as possible and dealing with bureaucracy after the fact.

BOLDUAN: Yes. The way you put it seems pretty clear to me, Tim, I have to say. Aaron, what do you think happens after August 31st to Alex's (ph) family if this doesn't go the way you -- if you can't get them out?

MARQUEZ: Well, you know, that's a scenario I don't really want to think about. I think, you know, Tim and I are really focused on, you know, what can we do now between the end of the month, and then also, you know, calling on the Congress and the administration to extend this mission for as long as it takes to, you know, not only, you know, we understand, you know, there's SIVs, there's American citizen still in the country. And then there's, you know, families like Alex (ph) that don't qualify

for any current programs. So really focused on, you know, not making sure at the end of the month is the end of the opportunity to get all of these folks out of there safely.

BOLDUAN: Aaron, Tim, thank you for coming on and being a voice for really the voiceless and speaking up for Alex (ph) and also just being good people. Thank you.

STRINGHAM: Thanks, Kate, appreciate your time.

MARQUEZ: Thanks for having us. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it. We will continue to follow this and Alex's (ph) story.


Coming up next for us, battle lines drawn in Texas, lawmakers hold a hearing on the controversial election overhaul bill where that is headed, coming up.


BOLDUAN: Happening now in the battle over voting rights, Texas lawmakers are making a big first move on the controversial Republican backed election overhaul bill. It's a first move now because until now the legislature didn't have enough members in town and in the Capitol to do any business. But three Democrats finally broke ranks last week and now this is moving ahead. CNN's Dianne Gallagher is following this for us and joins me now. So Dianne, it was a 38-day standoff. It is now over. Now what?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think we're seeing how it's playing out in this very moment, Kate. Right now the public testimony is underway in this House Select Committee. Now, members of the general public who were coming in to make their feelings on these bills, no one were told to prepare for Senate Bill One that election overhaul legislation that passed a couple weeks ago in the Texas Senate. But at the very last minute, the House said they were going to substitute for their own version, which is an identical bill to the one that was brought up in the House back during the first special session in July.

At that same time, they limited the amount of time that those on the Committee could question the bill presenter. And one interesting moments during this and the reason why they said they were limiting the time is because they already had a 14-hour hearing before the Democrats broke quorum. They were asked that bill presenter, the Republican bill presenter, was asked if they had had a chance to look at the racial impact of the legislation since, you know, over the past month here.


Each time that presenter said no, they have not looked at that. And of course, that is what prompted many of the Democrats to leave in the first place, saying they felt they had no choice because of the disproportionate impact that this would have on black and brown voters, disabled voters in the state of Texas. We could be looking at a committee vote coming up very shortly later today, Kate?

BOLDUAN: Moving very quickly now. Dianne, thank you very much for that.

Coming up next hour, President Biden will be addressing the nation on the breaking news today of the full FDA approval granted to the Pfizer COVID vaccine. Stay with us for that. CNN NEWSROOM with Erica Hill picks up right after a quick break.