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At This Hour

Death Toll From Storm Climbs To 25 In Erie County, New York; Future Of Title 42 Unclear As Supreme Court Decision Looms. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 11:00   ET




AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. AT THIS HOUR, a winter hellscape of relentless snow and cold levels in much of the United States, leading to at least 47 deaths. The border crisis collides with the Christmas cold. Right now, hundreds of migrants are shivering, stranded outside in freezing temperatures, waiting on a Supreme Court ruling about a critical immigration law. And a drone creeps deep inside Russian territory and kills three soldiers. Plus, should the world take Vladimir Putin at his word as the Russian leader repeats an offer to slide a chair up to the negotiating table with Ukraine? This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.

And good morning, thank you so much for being here. I'm Amara Walker in for Kate Bolduan. The death toll from a brutal winter storm rising now to at least 47. Western New York bearing the brunt with a once in a lifetime blizzard. The latest update this morning, the death toll in just Erie County climbing to 25. More than 43 inches of snow fell over the weekend and it's still coming down in some places. Roads in Buffalo are impassable and the city is under a driving ban.

Over 12,000 people are without power there. The Governor of New York has declared a state of emergency, and a National Guard is deploying 200 additional troops to the western part of the state. Even first responders were trapped or stranded during the height of the storm. Let's get straight to CNN's Polo Sandoval standing by live in Buffalo. I mean, these images we're seeing looks like a complete whiteout. Polo, you've been there for days. What's happening now?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You can't get out. You also can't get in some cases, Amara. And it has been absolutely nightmarish, to say the least, and just utterly heartbreaking when you see the numbers that continue to rise. We're talking about the number of storm related deaths. In the last hour, Erie County officials saying that number currently stands at 25 storm related deaths. It's a mix of folks that died at home and in some cases were found in some go stranded vehicles and others on the streets.

It is just awful when you look back on the last three days, and it certainly speaks to just how extraordinary this storm is, even for Buffalo, with many of the figures, whether it's weather conditions or some of the fatalities exceeding the numbers from the historic blizzard in 1977. But yet streets are clear. Some are clear, but boy, they still have a very long way to go.

You'll see a car drive by us in just a few seconds, but it really does kind of show you what the challenge has been for officials, which is keep streets clear. But in order to actually do that, they need that driving ban to remain in effect. And people just stay at home because the few paths that they're able to carve in the streets, they want that to be for medical personnel who need to respond to calls.

Mayor Byron Brown saying there's currently a fire, a three alarm fire that's happening in the city of Buffalo. They need to get fire trucks to that fire. That kind of gives you an idea. And then when you look at some of the drone video that was released by New York State Police, it'll give you an idea of what's happening outside of the city center, more in the residential areas that were hit particularly hard, authorities also helping to clear a path there.

And then when you hear from Mark Poloncarz, the executive here in Erie County, one of the biggest frustrating parts for county officials is to see that people are still getting in their cars and trying to drive around for nonessential business.


MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK EXECUTIVE: We still have a lot of travel of individuals who do not appear to be doing anything other than joy riding or going to a friend's house. Police have been working round the clock on life saving measures, so they have not been going out there ticketing people, but now they're going to because truthfully, you are harming our ability to recover and you may be the reason that we're not able to get an ambulance to a location.


SANDOVAL: And also getting food in. That's going to be the next big challenge for officials. They recognize that some of the warming shelters and also some of the facilities where first responders have been working for days now, they are starting to run out of food. So they're trying to find ways of getting food and supplies from neighboring counties into Erie County so that those folks who have been working tirelessly can continue to do their job. Back to you.

WALKER: Yes, it's a dangerous situation out there. People need to stay off the roads as officials are calling for. Polo Sandoval, I appreciate your reporting. Thank you for that. I want to bring in Michael Schwartz now. He is a reporter for CNN affiliate WKBW in Buffalo. Michael, you spent a decade living in the Buffalo area. Tell us what it's been like over the last few days and especially overnight when so much snow came down.


MICHAEL SCHWARTZ, REPORTER WKBW: Well, good morning, Amara. This storm has been devastating. It has been so tragic, so sad to see so many here in the City of Good Neighbors, Buffalo, New York, so helpless. I can tell you that this 18 wheeler behind me has been stuck here for more than two days in a blizzard that stopped society in its path. No one could get out of their homes. People were trapped. Take a look at these snow mounds. These are from those high winds that exceeded 40 miles per hour, drifting, blocking roads. This street was impassable. I want to take you out to one of the main streets, which is Church Street here in downtown Buffalo. You see those flashing lights on the sign behind me? That's the skyway. Major highways are still closed.

But I want to show you this Church Street because it has been a storm that has been deceiving. As you may have heard already, at least 25 deaths confirmed by the Erie County Health Department, a death toll number that's unfortunately expected to rise. But this street has been cleared. Just around the corner, you may have so much snow that's still blocking drivers from getting through. So people think that they can go out and that's what's causing them to be stuck.

We saw that people were trapped in their car. People are still being pulled out of their car. People are being found dead in their car. That's how crippling this storm was. This is Church Street now. Plows have been able to get through after cars, though we're stuck here. There's parking lots that were once streets. And what we're seeing right now, the latest condition, snow is continuing to fall. Our meteorologists here in Buffalo forecasting up to six inches of snow on top of what's already impassable roads.

WALKER: Yes, and obviously the power situation must be quite challenging as well. I mean, it's cold and when we're hearing about the deaths of people dying inside their cars, but also people dying inside their homes, really dire situation. Michael Schwartz, thank you for your reporting. So, as you saw there, the storm, as you'd imagine, is causing major travel problems at airports across the country.

Already this morning, over 1,700 flights have been canceled. That is on top of the backlog from the holiday weekend. CNN's Carlos Suarez live at the Atlanta International Airport for us. Hi, Carlos, what are you hearing from travelers this morning? Or should I be asking you how they are coping with all these delays and cancellations?

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Amara, good morning. The folks out here, they are just making due with the fact that they're probably going to be stuck in these lines behind me for several hours. That being said, this is probably the slowest we've seen things at the airport. We were here earlier this morning and you really couldn't walk around here. There were so many people packed into just one space here at the Delta terminal.

That, however, still means you are going to have to wait in pretty long lines right now. This line here yesterday were travelers that were just waiting to get rebooked, this morning there's a good mix of folks that are either getting put on a new flight or they're just here to check in their bags. When we're talking about the total number of canceled flights here in Atlanta, well, that number is 154 flights that have been grounded today because of that cold weather that has swept over a good part of the country.

Now, overall, when we're taking a look at the number of canceled flights across the U.S. As you said, coming back out to me, at this point in the day, we're looking at well over 1,700 flights that have been canceled. That number yesterday was well north of 3,000 flights that were grounded. Folks have been in long lines this entire weekend, this entire holiday weekend.

We caught up with one father who came out here with his son because they've been stuck at the airport for the better part of about a day and a half now. And he was trying to get them on standby. Here's the rest of what he told us.


MICHAEL JUSTICE, AIRLINE PASSENGER TRYING TO GET HOME: My situation is trying to get them home from visiting us on the holidays. They were scheduled to fly out on Saturday and canceled flight after canceled flight until this morning. Now it's standby, hoping they'll get on to get home.


SUAREZ: And, Amara, just about everyone that we've talked to that has been rebooked on a flight, they're really not going to get out of here until maybe Tuesday, Wednesday the earliest, though it's looking more likely that they're probably going to be able to get out of town come Thursday. Amara?

WALKER: Sounds terrible, tough holiday season for so many travelers. Carlos Suarez, thank you very much. Those freezing temperatures that blanketed much of the country for Christmas weekend are beginning to ease, but millions of people are still dealing with frigid temperatures. CNN's Chad Myers joining me now with more. Chad, what do we need to know?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Amara, the winds have died off a little bit. That's helpful. I mean, obviously the 70, 80 miles per hour wind gusts at Buffalo's Airport, blowing all that heavy snow around was just the tip of the iceberg there with just the zero visibility. That's why so many cars are out there stranded on roadways that are just hopefully abandoned and not people still in them, like we saw this morning, where people were or bodies were being discovered.


Right now, Columbus, nine degrees is your wind chill. Louisville, about 10, 15 for the rest of the day. But Buffalo officially now 49.2 inches of snow. It was 43 yesterday, which means they picked up another half a foot overnight. And so now that brings you to 98.9. That is above your normal for the entire year. And it's not even January yet. There's some snow all the way from Cincinnati back down to about Nashville, some of that making a slick spot or two. But the sun will be out, melting most of that off. Most of the snow from Buffalo in the south towns has now moved up to the north towns, up toward North Tonawanda and like but still lots of snow on the ground. And now it's settling. It's getting heavier, it's getting harder to move, and then it's going to warm up. So maybe some of that will melt if you can wait long enough to get it to move. Tip still cold today, warming up in Denver, but look at Buffalo, you're back up to almost 50 degrees by the end of this week, and Chicago even warmer than that. All of these cold temperatures will eventually moderate, but it is going to be a slow process, maybe another 72 hours before some people even get above freezing.

WALKER: Yes, those warm temperatures cannot come soon enough. Chad Myers, good to see you. Thank you, as always.

Well, we are hearing stories, both harrowing and heartwarming, of people helping each other through this dangerous winter storm. On CNN this morning, Poppy Harlow spoke with a family in Buffalo who was rescued by firefighters in blizzard conditions on Christmas Eve, and the family spent the night in the firehouse.


DANIELLE TISDALE, SPENT CHRISTMAS AT BUFFALO FIREHOUSE: It was very intense. We tried to keep it together for as long as possible because we didn't want to frighten the kids, but I've never seen anything like it. It's almost like a cliche when you hear people say you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. I can just describe it as it was like looking at a white piece of construction paper. You couldn't see anything at all, like absolutely nothing until you were probably about a foot away from it. Even cars with their bright lights on, you just couldn't see anything. It's not yellow traffic signs, not orange traffic calls. You couldn't see anything. You couldn't see a stoplight. So it's like you kind of just have to drive through the intersection frame.

MIKE CARRUBBA, BUFFALO AIRPORT FIRE DEPARTMENT: Demetrice was pretty shaken up, and he said, just please don't leave us. I just told him, I said, I'll never leave you. And at that time, it was trying -- it is time to get some resources to help us out. So I requested from one of our local volunteer agencies, Highview Fire Department, they have an argument -- an offroad vehicle. So got all of them and they got to us. They said we'll be right over as fast as we can. About 45 minutes later they were there and we had to welcome back just so we could see. I mean, visibility was zero. And the, you know, fall, the drifts were four or 5 feet high at the time. So we're just super fortunate to be able to help people and kind of make their Christmas.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Well, and I bet those smiles from those kids made your Christmas as well. Dmitris, dad, last word to you, what was it like waking up on Christmas morning? I think Santa came, right?

DEMETRICE TISDALE, SPENT CHRISTMAS AT BUFFALO FIREHOUSE: Santa came. It was very awesome. Those guys were amazing at the firehouse. They treated us with nothing but love and welcome us with open arms. We felt like family there. They even cooked for the kids and everything, pancakes. It was just a beautiful experience. This is something we'll never forget. We actually felt like we're family with those guys and it was -- they made it a beautiful Christmas.


WALKER: What an incredible story, definitely a memorable Christmas for that family and the firefighters as well.


While migrants sleeping out in the cold, desperately trying to stay warm amid the winter blast, this as we await a decision on the future of Title 42. We are live at the border, next.


WALKER: Hundreds of migrants are waiting out in the cold on the Mexican side of the southern border as we await a Supreme Court decision on Title 42. On the Texas side, it is a similar story. Many migrants spent Christmas sleeping on the street, under blankets and in makeshift tents as they braved below freezing temperatures. We could get a ruling in the coming days. But for now, Title 42 remains in place, allowing for migrants to be quickly turned away after crossing illegally. CNN's Camilla Bernal has been following this story for us for days now. She's joining us now live from El Paso. Camila, tell us more about what the people are telling you there.

CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, they're telling me that it's hard, that sleeping out in the cold is extremely difficult, but they say they will do whatever it takes to stay in this country. We've seen a lot of desperation, a lot of people who really are struggling, but over the last couple of days, we've also seen a lot of generosity, so many locals that brought Christmas presents. So I just want to show you right now a lot of the kids and some of the adults playing with the basketball at soccer ball. That was all thanks to the locals here in El Paso who brought Christmas presents for many of the children.


I had moms telling me, look, I would have never been able to afford this in Venezuela, simple toys that were maybe worth $5. And that's what you're seeing in the streets here today. But if you turn around, you're also seeing the many blankets one after the other. This is how they have to sleep every single night because the shelters are at capacity. A lot of these migrants don't have the proper documentation to use the city resources, the city shelter.

All of that only allows for people who have the proper documentation from Customs and Border Protection. So if they do not have that, the only option they have is a nonprofit, like where I am right now. And because that nonprofit is at capacity, the families have to sleep out here in the cold but they say they will do anything they can for their children. Amara?

WALKER: Yes, understandable. Camila Bernal, really appreciate your reporting. Thank you.

I'm joined now by Hidalgo County, Texas Judge Richard Cortez. Hidalgo county is located right along the U.S.-Mexico border and includes the city of McAllen, which is about east southeast of where we just saw Camila Bernal in El Paso. Judge Cortez, thank you so much for joining us this morning. First off, I know that you have said multiple times in several interviews that you are concerned if Title 42 ends, there will be an unmanageable surge at the U.S.-Mexico border where you are. Can you first off, tell us what the situation is right now, what you are seeing at the border?

JUDGE RICHARD CORTEZ (D), HIDALGO COUNTY, TEXAS: Well, first of all, thank you. Good morning. Thank you for having me. The situation is pretty much the same. We have many, many immigrants that are on the Mexican side of the border hoping, wanting to cross over. Title 42 has been nothing more than a tool for our people in uniform to use to manage that flow.

You know, we have capacity issues here and we cannot, and we can only handle so many people legally. And thank goodness for Catholic Charities and other non-governmental agencies that have been helping us manage that flow. What we have is really a humanitarian crisis because, you know, these immigrants here, some of them are sponsors, not proper clothing, very little money of any money at all.

So we really have a problem that needs to be addressed by Congress. They've been trying to solve with enforcement on the policy. We know that hasn't worked.

WALKER: What is it that you want, Judge, when it comes to Title 42, which was this emergency set of powers that invoked, you know, the spread of preventing the spread of COVID-19 to be able to prevent --

CORTEZ: Title 42 is almost like a mutual agreement with Mexico. There's only certain immigrants from certain nationalities that Mexico will accept us returning them back to them. So it's really a coordinated effort between the United States and Mexico. But it's been a tool that's worked. I mean, we've been able to manage a very difficult situation because of how --

WALKER: Right, so my question to you, Judge, is what is it that you want from, you know, the Supreme Court, from the Biden and administration and ultimately Congress because, I mean, your -- the fate of your county will be determined by these entities.

CORTEZ: Well, let me -- I'm sorry I wasn't responsive to your question. What I want is I want Congress to change our law to have a comprehensive immigration reform so that our laws can ask our needs of our country. That hasn't happened. That's a long term solution. A short term solution is we need more capacity. We need more resources here to help us with the flow of immigrants. If you remove Title 42, then we're going to have an overflow. What does an overflow mean?

Well, that we can legally process them all legally on time. So what's going to happen? They're going to turn and losing to our communities. And some of them, we don't know whether they're having infectious diseases or not. We don't know where they're going to sleep. What they're going to do is going to take care of them. So it presents a lot of problems that are really unnecessary.

WALKER: I do want to ask you about the several busloads of migrants before we go who were dropped off in front of Vice President Kamala Harris's residence in D.C. over the holiday weekend. The White House says the governor of your state, Greg Abbott, is responsible, just wanted to get your take on that.

CORTEZ: Well, busing immigrants out of this area in a way helps us because it takes us out of our area, but it's not the solution to the problem. I wish our governor, along with our President and everybody else in Congress would sit down and figure this out through proper laws. What we're seeing here and busing these immigrants is nothing more than theater because it's not the solution.


WALKER: All right, well, we'll be awaiting the Supreme Court decision, as I'm sure you will be, and hopefully we'll catch up again soon. All the best to you this holiday season, thank you so much, Richard Cortez, for joining us.

CORTEZ: Thank you very much. Good morning.

WALKER: Amid renewed offensive against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is ready to negotiate with everyone involved. Ukraine has now responded. We'll have more, next.