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Grain Ship Leaves Ukraine; Nancy Pelosi Expected to Visit Taiwan; California Fires; At Least 30 Killed in Kentucky Flooding. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 01, 2022 - 13:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

And, right now, a catastrophic situation unfolding in Kentucky. At least 30 people are dead, hundreds are unaccounted for, and officials are racing now to beat the intense heat that's in the forecast for later this week.

But finding survivors is difficult. Bridges and roads are washed away. Vital power is out. And the threat of more rain is still hanging over this very saturated region. A new flood watch was issued overnight for the eastern part of the state. And we're learning more today about those who escaped the waters and more about those who did not, lives and families forever changed.

Evan McMorris-Santoro kicks off our coverage in Hazard, Kentucky.

Tell us what you're seeing, Evan.

EVAN MCMORRIS-SANTORO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ana, we have been by this creek along Route 28 in Perry County, one of the hardest-hit counties, for the whole day.

And I want to talk to you a bit about why we have been here, because you can see the water level that they're still dealing with here after this flood that came through. This creek flooded over eight or 10 feet from here, taking a whole house with it, knocking out the bottom of this building you can see to my right.

And the water has been going up and down. We have been having rain throughout the day. You can see that yellow road sign has been sort of our guide. This morning, it was raining. The water went all the way back up to the top of that rock and almost submerged that sign. It's come back down now.

But, as you mentioned, there is more rain in the forecast. And there is a flood watch for tonight. And the problem is, this creek is already still high. So they can't really take much more water.

No one's expecting there to be rain, a flood surge like we saw on Thursday, that absolutely historic level flood surge. But it won't take much for there to be a lot more damage here, because the ground is so saturated. And, also, there's already so much water already around in things like these creeks and streams and things they have already been trying to deal with the water that already came through.

So it's a scary situation when we look down that forecast and see that there might be more water on its way. Right now, it's sunny, but it could get really bad, really fast -- Ana.

CABRERA: Evan, I know you're learning more about some of the victims, including four children. What more can you tell us?

MCMORRIS-SANTORO: Well, that's right, just the incredibly sad story in Knott County of four siblings, young children. All died together in these floods. I assume you're showing the picture right now. I can't see it. We're here -- out here operating in the technical world that we have.

That picture speaks volumes about what has gone on in this area. There are people with pictures in their hands all over this community trying to find people they haven't heard from since the floodwaters rose. They hope they're alive. They hope that they have had supplies and water and things that they have needed, sometimes finding that they're not.

And in the case of those four children, it's about as tragic as you can imagine. Unfortunately, every time we hear a new update from local officials and officials here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, that number goes up. There's a lot of tragedy in these mountains after this flood. And with these new waters coming in, it's a race against time to try and get help people who need it, find people who have died before there might be more flooding coming on -- Ana.

CABRERA: It's so sad.

The aunt of those four children said their mom and her partner were trying so hard to hold on to the arms of those children as the family made its way to its roof because of the waters getting so high, that the strength of the water just was too strong. They couldn't hold on any longer. And the children were washed, of course, away.

Thank you, Evan McMorris-Santoro, for your reporting, and helping to shine light on what is happening there. We appreciate it.

One mother says she used the cord from her vacuum cleaner to tie herself to her two children, hoping it would help keep them alive and in the worst-case at least ensure their bodies would be found together.

Well, Jessica Willett survived. So did her children. She says she heard sounds coming from her home's foundation just before midnight. This was on Wednesday evening. And when she opened her front door, this is what she saw. Within 10 minutes, Jessica says her home was being swept away and she and her children, just 11 and 3 years old, were using that cord to stay together.

Jessica Willett joins us now. Jessica, wow. I am so relieved to know you survived this, that your children are OK. But I know you have gone through a lot and are traumatized. Help us understand what happened. How much warning did you have?



I heard noises. And when I opened the door, the water was at my door.

CABRERA: So you didn't even know that the flooding had begun at that point. It just happened that quick.

And then what went through your mind? What did you do next?

WILLETT: The first thing that went through my mind is that I didn't know if we would be swept away or not. And the worst thing, the thought was, well, what am I going to do? I have got to try to save my kids.

So I grabbed two bathrobe ties, and I tied them together. And that wasn't long enough. So, I cut the cord off the vacuum cleaner and tied us all three together, so -- because I thought, I can try to save us or, if we didn't make it, then we could be found all together.

CABRERA: As a mother, I can't imagine having to think like that.

What made you think, though, to cut the cord to your vacuum?

WILLETT: I don't know. I didn't have nothing else. So that was the closest thing that I could get to a rope.

CABRERA: And you just wanted to make sure you would all stay together. And you did, thankfully.


CABRERA: Gosh, I imagine this is...


CABRERA: ... just kind of painful to relive those moments.

What happened after you all were tied together?

WILLETT: We sit in the living room for a while. And the water was coming in. And then the floor was dipping.

And I thought -- my 3-year-old started getting scared. So I thought, well, let me try to find somewhere where the water hadn't come in yet. So we go into Nevaeh's bedroom. And we sit in there on the mattress, because I thought -- well, I thought we was going to rip apart, because you could hear it popping and cracking. And you could feel it.

So I thought, well, if we ripped apart, maybe this mattress -- we could hold on to this mattress and we would make it out OK. But, luckily, we got sandwiched between a tree stump and the hillside. And that basically just sandwiched us together and kept it from being completely ripped apart.

CABRERA: But your house, it lifted from its foundation, right? And it started to go down with the water and kind of like a river of water that was going by there.

Is that typically a creek or, is that usually a roadway? What would normally be where we're seeing in these pictures that water and all of that debris?

WILLETT: That's a road.

Well, my house sit right in front of the electric pole. And then -- but in front of that was a road. And then it was the small creek in front of that. But it swept us off our foundation and down the road about 100 feet or so.

CABRERA: When did you actually make it out of the home?

WILLETT: I think it was about 3:00 or 4:00 or something like that when I realized that we were stuck on the cliff. And then I could hear mud falling.

So I was afraid that the mud -- a mudslide was going to come. So, I thought let me try to get them out. And then I opened the window in my -- Isaiah's bedroom and saw -- I can see the road. So we climbed out of that.

And then I walked about five foot, and then there was -- the roadway was covered with water. So I had to leave them there and wade through just to see how deep it was. And once I realized that we could get through, I had to go back for them.


And now what? What are you -- what's your family's situation currently?

WILLETT: Right now, I'm staying with my mom. But I don't know. We have insurance, but we don't have flood insurance because we weren't in a flood zone. So I don't know what to do.

CABRERA: I'm so sorry, Jessica, for the situation that you and your family is in.

Have you had a chance to talk to any of your neighbors? We know there are still so many people who are missing right now, as authorities are still assessing whether people made it out and made it to safety.


Our little community, we lost the lab down in the hollow that we live in. And my aunt lost everything that she has too. And there's just a bunch of them down there that don't have nothing no more. And we don't have no flood insurance. It's not -- I mean, we weren't in a flood zone.

So I really hope FEMA can come in and help us.

CABRERA: How are you going to keep going? One day at a time, I suppose, huh?


WILLETT: Yes. That's the only thing I know to do.

CABRERA: Well, I do want to let our viewers know that you have set up a GoFundMe, and I know that you are asking for any bit of help, including prayers, you say,on your Web site here.

I sure hope that people come to help your family and show that the generosity that I know exists. And please keep in touch with us and we will we will do what we can also to lift you and your family up.

Thank you, Jessica Willett, for joining us.

WILLETT: Thank you.

CABRERA: Now I want to take you to Northern California, a region that is desperately in need of rain.

The McKinney Fire broke out on Friday, and has already exploded into the state's largest wildfire so far this year. More than 55,000 acres have burned. That's nearly twice the land area of San Francisco.

And that's where CNN's Camila Bernal is joining us now.

Camila, we have some new satellite images from space today showing just how much this fire exploded over the weekend. Has there been any progress made?

CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ana, unfortunately, no. we're still at zero percent containment.

We have seen the numbers growing in terms of the number of acres burned. And yet containment remains at zero, which means there's still so much work to be done here. This fire, as you said, exploded since it first began. And it is now the largest fire in the state of California.

Authorities saying that yesterday, it was very, very smoky, and it was good, but it was also bad, good because it helped slow some of those flames, slow the spread. But it was bad because aircraft was grounded. So there was no way of fighting this fire from above. You have firefighters working around the clock doing everything they can to keep those fire lines, but as of now, zero percent containment.

We know two people have already died as a result of this fire, authorities saying they found two bodies inside of a burned car that was in a residential driveway. And so it is dangerous for people who are choosing to stay in that area. We know that the forecast for today is also not very helpful. There is

thunderstorms and lightning on the forecast. And what authorities are saying is that these thunderstorms, what they do is spread the flame. So it's not just bad conditions for the fire, but it's also really dangerous for the firefighters who are out there, because the wind changes the directions of these flames quickly.

So, in many times, these firefighters just don't even know where the fire is coming from or where it's moving to. So it is just really dangerous for the men and women who are out there trying to stop the flames. And it's part of the reason why they're telling people to listen to those evacuation orders. There are thousands under evacuation orders, people who have had to leave their homes, take whatever they can with them because they don't -- they just don't know when they're going to be able to return to their homes.

So this is an ongoing situation and it is important to point out that it is no longer just fire season here in California. It really is almost year-round. It is the ongoing drought in California fueling a lot of these fires. There is so much of this dry fuel that these flames spread very quickly.

And that's how you get more than 55,000 acres burned so far -- Ana.

CABRERA: Zero percent contained still.

Camila Bernal, thank you.

It's a huge day for Ukraine and the world. Why this ship full of grain is a big boost for the battered nation and efforts to ease the global food crisis.

Plus, Washington waits. As Senator Manchin revives some major Biden priorities, what's in the new deal, what's not, and will a critical moderate Democrat get on board?

And six games after dozens of sexual misconduct allegations -- what we're learning about the suspension decision for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson.



CABRERA: Overseas now, China has promised serious consequences. And we may soon find out what they mean.

CNN has learned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to visit Taiwan on her trip to Asia, triggering fresh warnings from Beijing of egregious political fallout, and its military saying it will bury incoming enemies.

Now, keep in mind the Pentagon has publicly said it doesn't think this is a good time and President Biden has stopped short of directly telling Pelosi not to visit.

CNN's Will Ripley is in Taipei.

Will, help us understand why this visit is so controversial and why Speaker Pelosi appears set to go anyway.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, she might be in the final months for her speakership, and 25 years after Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan, she would be the highest-ranking U.S. official to do it at a time of rising tensions.

It's a show of support for Taiwan. She had planned to go earlier this year. Then she got COVID. The trip was called off. And as of now, actually, the trip this time around isn't officially on the calendar yet. But we know that, after a stop in Malaysia, she will be landing here in Taipei in the evening. She will be overnighting here.

And then she will have some meetings a few hours perhaps before getting on the flight and moving on. So it's not like it's going to be a multiple-day event. But China could be very angry that she's spending the night here and that the imagery of her with President Tsai Ing-wen and other Taiwanese leaders is a sign that somehow the U.S. supports Taiwan's formal independence, even though the U.S. says their position on the Taiwan issue has not changed.

CABRERA: So China is promising a tough response. Will, what could that look like?

RIPLEY: You know, the propaganda, Ana, that we're hearing is kind of this boilerplate rhetoric that we have heard from China before.


It was almost reassuring to some, some of us who are observers, when President Xi Jinping used that play with fire, get burned line, because we have heard that before. It's a specific action that they're saying they're going to take.

Now granted, China loves to keep it ambiguous. They like to keep people guessing as to what they're going to do. But the signs right now, you don't see a major military buildup. You see propaganda, and you see strongly worded statements, making this look like yet another rhetorical escalation, but hopefully not a military one, Ana.

CABRERA: Will Ripley in Taipei, Taiwan, thank you.

Meantime, the first Ukrainian grain shipment since the Russian invasion left the Port of Odessa today. The ship you see leaving there is part of an internationally broker deal aimed at alleviating a global food crisis.

But it comes as Russia appears to be intensifying its attacks, especially in the south and the east of Ukraine.

CNN's Jason Carroll is in Kyiv.

Jason, are Ukrainians bracing for more heavy shelling, particularly around Mykolaiv and Odessa? JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You are absolutely


It looks like there are some signs indicating, Ana, that things are about to get even more intense down there, as you can imagine, this after that there are some signs indicating that the Russians may be redeploying more sources, more troops, more artillery, more machinery down into that area, that after an official in Mariupol basically said that they are seeing -- quote -- "seeing signs of a massive movement of military equipment and personnel."

This of course after the folks there in Mykolaiv saw heavy shelling, some of the heaviest shelling the mayor says that he has seen since the beginning of the war, a hotel destroyed, a sports complex destroyed, residents destroyed as well. And, in fact, the home of a prominent businessman was destroyed. He was killed, along with his wife.

They were hiding in the base basement, trying to shelter themselves from the incoming bombing. And it turns out that their bodies were found. They were killed during that over the weekend,.

President Zelenskyy called this man, called him a hero, called him a patriot. And what you're seeing down there is really a sign of what has been going on in terms of the Ukrainians really keeping the pressure on in the southern part of the country, doing all they can to retake the land that was taken by the Russians -- Ana.

CABRERA: OK, thank you for that update, Jason Carroll live in Ukraine for us.

Let's bring in retired U.S. Army Major John Spencer. He's now the chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum and the author of at new book "Connected Soldiers."

Major, it's always great to have you on.

It feels like a big development, this first grain shipment since February, but still it's just one ship. What kind of progress is this in your eyes?

MAJ. JOHN SPENCER (RET.), MADISON POLICY FORUM: I mean, I think it's very promising, like you said, to finally have those ports open.

This is a test, basically, ship of only 26,000 tons. And if you remember, there's over 25 million tons stuck there, that there are literally millions of people dying in Africa and the Middle East who don't have that because Russia kept it at bay.

CABRERA: We're told dates and timings of further shipments are still to be determined. But at least this one ship does appear to have gotten out.

It'll go to Turkey, where it will be inspected. And then we will continue to track it from there. Meantime, let's talk about the fighting, and the southern region of

Mykolaiv enduring more intense shelling overnight, the mayor there describing it as the worst he's seen since the invasion began. What's your sense of the state of play right now in terms of where the battle is and who has momentum right now?

SPENCER: Yes, Ana, it's pretty fluid.

I think Mykolaiv, really, it's continued Russian missile terrorism. But I think they're also frustrated by the gains that they are seen by Ukraine in the south, especially around here Kherson, where they're -- Ukraine's poised to have basically a strategic win of reclaiming Kherson, while Russia hasn't been able to achieve the gains it's wanted to in the Donbass and Donetsk, and it's really slowing down.

So, one, you see this is continued momentum gaining by Ukraine and then momentum lost to Russia.

CABRERA: And yet President Zelenskyy ordered a mandatory evacuation from the Donetsk region over the weekend. Now that, to me, feels like a change in posture and tone from Zelenskyy, who's been so upbeat, so all about defeating Russia no matter what.

It feels like he's sending a message almost that a Russian victory in that area is an inevitable if he's ordering a mandatory evacuation. But how do you interpret it?


SPENCER: I interpret it as a great leader would do.

Even when you're trying to achieve tactical gains, you're not going to put civilians at risk where you see, in the Donetsk, Russia has put a priority and put a lot of forces there. So the president has to make hard decisions. So I see that as a sound decision, get civilians out of the way while there's many battles going on.

But, I mean, I don't view it as a sign of failure in any way.

CABRERA: And you're an expert on urban warfare, which we have talked about in the past.

I imagine being able to ensure civilians are out allows the Ukrainians to fight more effectively.

SPENCER: Yes, absolutely.

And Russia has shown that it will not follow any rules of law in fighting, like we saw what it did to Mariupol and especially recently in there Severodonetsk.

So I think this is really precautionary. But you're right. In urban warfare, it would allow the Ukrainians to increase their fire if there's less danger to civilians, although there's always danger to even civilian property.

You don't want your cities destroyed, because then all these people lost their homes.

CABRERA: Major John Spencer, as always, I appreciate your expertise. Thank you so much for joining us.

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