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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Storm Death Toll Rises to 37 in Erie Co. NY, as Crews Dig Out; Thousands of Southwest Passengers Remain Stranded at Airports; Most Compelling Crime & Justice Stories of the Year. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 29, 2022 - 05:00   ET



WHITNEY WILD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm Whitney Wild.

The death toll from the huge winter storm keeps rising. It is now up to 62 deaths across 11 states. Of those, by far, the greatest share were in Erie County, New York, where at least 37 people died.


MARK POLONCARZ, COUNTY EXECUTIVE, ERIE CO., NEW YORK: The horrible storm with too many deaths, but we know that without the use of the first responders and others, more people who would've died.


WILD: First responders are still checking on callers, they couldn't reach in Buffalo, which is buried underneath the 52 inches of snow. Overnight, Buffalo lifted a driving ban, as crews made headway clearing the streets.

CNN's Miguel Marquez is in Buffalo with more on the efforts to dig out.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Buffalo digging out. Officials here responding to criticism they should have done more.

MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: Thirty-five-mile-per-hour wind gusts for three hours straight with less than a quarter mile visibility. This was an extreme blizzard, maybe the category 5 of blizzards.

MARQUEZ: Casey Maccarone's mother, Monique Alexander, died in the storm on Christmas Eve. The Buffalo native, who had been through many snowstorms here, thought this one was the same.

CASEY MACCARONE, MOTHER DIED IN STORM: We were waiting for her to come home. I knew something was wrong right away.

MARQUEZ: A simple decision on any other day, life-threatening in this storm.

MACCARONE: My kids, they lost their grandmother and that was her most important role in her life was being a good grandmother. And now they just have memories.

MARQUEZ: In Erie County alone, at least 34 people killed so far in extreme weather in an area accustomed to major snowstorms.

For every person who died, dozens of stories of those who stepped up and saved friends, neighbors, even strangers.

CRAIG ELSTON, OWNER, C&C CUTZ BARBERSHOP: This is something I always do. I help everybody. There's people out there dying. There's people freezing to death in they car.

MARQUEZ: Craig Elston was open for business when the extreme conditions started up.

ELSTON: If you need shelter, come to 707 Filmore. You can get warm, heat and electricity.

MARQUEZ: He ended up hosting up to 40 people over two days at his C&C Cutz barbershop.

ELSTON: We got to come together and a lot of times people are selfish. So, at that moment, I was just thinking about, clearly not any this stuff, I was just thinking about keeping people warm. It was really that simple.

MARQUEZ: Then there was Sha'Kyra Aughtry who heard a man she didn't know screaming for help.

SHA'KYRA AUGHTRY, HELPED SAVE FROSTBITTEN MAN IN BUFFALO: He had ice balls on his hand. We brought him in my house.

MARQUEZ: Joe White, who was developmentally disabled, lost in whiteout conditions. Aughtry didn't know him, but she saved him.

AUGHTRY: We got to get some help. He has gangrene on his hands. He's going to lose his hands.

MARQUEZ: A driving ban remains in effect for Buffalo as the city recovers from a storm that will be one for the record books. The airport is now reopened, as Buffalo comes to grips with a brutal year.

MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: The tragic stories, the losses of individuals in our community and it is heartbreaking. It's a gut punch. 2022 has been a horrible year for our community in so many different ways. I can't wait until 2023 starts.


MARQUEZ (on camera): What is incredible, in talking to these families of victims who died in this storm, and people who survived the storm, and rode it out, is just how quickly the conditions changed. Just how bad it was, and how rapidly their loved ones were lost in the storm, and how quickly people could have died, if they were out for any period of time.

Two concerns for authorities right now, moving snow as quickly as possible out of the drains, especially throughout the city, because they are concerned about higher temperatures in the days ahead. And, tons of melt water, possibly, creating flooding. Then, going house to house, figuring out if anyone else is in need, or anyone else has expired.

Back to you.

WILD: Miguel Marquez, thank you.

Severe weather is being blamed for five deaths in Oregon. Police say that they were killed by falling trees in three separate car accidents. A powerful storm system is bringing heavy rain, mountain snow and hurricane force wind gust to much of the Western United States, leaving tens of thousands of customers without power.

And, even stronger storms are moving into the West Coast Friday and Saturday, and it could bring several feet of snow to the Sierras.


So let's bring in, Chad Myer. He's the tracking the system in the CNN Weather Center.

So, Chad, how about is this going to be?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, Whitney, I'm looking at the computer models in disbelief, because some of the areas around Yosemite now, both the American and the European model, are saying over 200 inches are expected over the next six days, 200 inches of snow. You melted all, down that's over a foot of water.

Now, that's going to melt off and we're going to use it later in the spring for drinking water and groundwater and all of that. But the big story this morning is Denver, Colorado. There are hundreds of thousands of people stranded on I-70 west of Denver right now because of the snow storm that came through overnight. And there on Twitter, they're complaining about it as well.

Nine point eight for Boulder right now. I-25 not any better as well. There is the snow across parts of Colorado, into Nebraska today. But this is just a precursor, this is just what's coming, this is the first one that hit California and Oregon a couple of days ago, there is more weather coming into California, northern California, higher elevations above 5,000 feet. You're going to see 305 feet, no question about it.

And even in the places where the roads are like the interstate, so this is going to be a very dangerous couple of days to travel, possibly even all the way going to Tuesday. Here is Monday. The first storm is, gone but another one coming on short.

These are like lined up like planes going to LaGuardia, one after another, after another. And, it doesn't stop. He melted all, down there's going to be a foot of rainfall in the snow, but some of the snowfall totals, on my map are over my legend. You don't even have colors that go the. Height that is how much snow will be coming down.

Not focusing a little bit farther to the east or Buffalo, is because there's going to be snowball. There's going to be rainfall. In Ontario, Watertown, all of these areas are going to be well above 32 for the next seven days. And then you get a little bit of rain on top, that you have to watch that snow away.

There is going to be some street flooding, maybe not major river flooding and such. But, if you have some pump in your basement, make sure that the drain that goes out of your house is cleared from snow, otherwise the water is just going to run right back down into your basement, again and it comes one after another, after another.

We're watching the storm system right now, but, Whitney, so many lined up still to come. Great news for the drought but difficult to drive or even survive in some spots.

WILD: Yes, it's certainly difficult to travel and after last week, this is just going to pileup.

Chad Myers, thank you.

There is still no let up to the meltdown at Southwest Airlines. The carrier struggling to return to normal operations as it cancels more than 2,300 flights, again. That's nearly all the flights canceled in the U.S. so far today.

CNN's Gabe Cohen has the latest from Baltimore.


GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tens of thousands of travelers still weathering southwest's meltdown, without a clear end in sight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm hungry, I'm exhausted. I just want to go home.

COHEN: The airline canceling more than 2,500 flights Wednesday, 62 percent of its schedule, according to FlightAware, with a similar wave of cancellations already shaping up for Thursday.

ASHLEY MAYS, STRANDED SOUTHWEST CUSTOMER: This has been a complete nightmare. I trusted southwest with my, well, the belongings, and to get me from point A to point. B and I just feel like I was robbed at this point.

COHEN: Ashley Mae says she's stranded in Baltimore with no luggage, her flight home to Texas, canceled Christmas morning. She said she was hoping to get back to spend time at her dying grandmother side.

MAYS: I couldn't make it and now she passed away, as of yesterday, I will never get that time back to at least hold her hand or you know, spend that time with her and she spent her last few days just waiting on me.

COHEN: Southwest says this chaos began with winter weather but the airlines antiquated system struggled to track their planes and crews and connect them, resulting in this week's worth of canceled flights and missing luggage as they re-position those cruise.

BOB JORDAN, SOUTHWEST CEO, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: We reached a decision point to significantly reduce our flying to catch up.

COHEN: And the airline's own employees want answers.

LYN MONTGOMERY, SOUTHWEST FLIGHT ATTENDANTS' UNION: It's been absolutely horrific, the most despicable working conditions that you can imagine.

CASEY MURRAY, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES PILOTS ASSOCIATION: This is going to continue until there is a sweeping change to the way Southwest operates.

COHEN: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg vowing to hold the airline accountable, especially after staffing issued caused problems last summer.

PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: They provided commitments in writing, including Southwest, that they would go above the previous level of what you do to take care of customers with things like covering the cost, if you get stuck and you need a hotel or a meal, in addition to rebooking.

COHEN: Still, thousands of passengers are stranded and struggling.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, I hate Southwest. I hate them.

COHEN: But amid the chaos, we've seen some remarkable gestures. I met 72-year-old Pam Shelby Tuesday, stranded and sleeping at Baltimore's airport for days.

PAM SHELBY, STRANDED SOUTHWEST CUSTOMER: I'm scared I'm not going to get out of here. And I'm by myself.

COHEN: A Good Samaritan saw her story on TV and bought her a ticket home to Alabama on another airline, leaving Wednesday night.

SHELBY: Just want to go take a shower and sleep and get this out of my mind.


COHEN: And that person who bought you the ticket, what did that mean to you?

SHELBY: She was a Godsend. She was my angel.


COHEN (on camera): And I'm also hearing from stranded travelers who say, right, now they are footing the bill for things like hotels and food and transportation, unable to reach Southwest customer service. Now, the airline says those travelers should save the receipts which will be reviewed on a case by case basis. The Department of Transportation adding, that they will hold southwest accountable if they don't take care of those stranded travelers.

Gabe Cohen, CNN, Baltimore, Maryland.

WILD: Gabe Cohen, thank you.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has proved a potential $180 million arms sale to Taiwan. The State Department says the proposed of anti-state munitions system serves U.S. security interest by helping Taiwan maintain a credible defensive capability in its decade long standoff with Beijing. The move is likely to provoke anger from Beijing which used Taiwan as part of China.

The United States is planning to require all travelers from China to show a negative COVID test result before flying to the United States, the mandate will be enforced beginning next, week as China struggles to contain a surge of cases there.

Paula Hancocks is live from Seoul.

So, Paula, the U.S. is concerned about the Chinese government's lack of transparency has Chinese leadership responded to that?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Whitney, they actually responded even before the U.S. had officially said that they were going to put those extra restrictions in, saying that they felt that it was unfair, also, in a statement from the ministry of foreign affairs saying that all parties need to work together scientifically against the epidemic to ensure the safe movement of people between countries.

Now, of course, that is ironic considering China has had among the most stringent and long-lasting restrictions when it comes to mass testing, lockdowns, border closures. Since the pandemic began.

The U.S. is just one of many countries around the world that is adding testing requirements for all travelers from China. You have Japan, India, Taiwan, Italy also adding restrictions that they had not, so long, ago given up on. Now, Italy is an interesting case because we heard from the health chief in the Lombardy region that's it, on Monday, almost 50 percent of all passengers who arrived at Milan airport from China tested positive for COVID-19.

So, this, he was, saying is a reason why they believe that they have to put these extra restrictions in place, countries are concerned that this explosion of COVID cases within China is already starting to move beyond its borders. Many countries already coping with their own surges in COVID numbers as well.

But the U.S. has specifically mentioned they're concerned about possible variants and they want to monitor that. We did hear from the global consortium, that provides a database of all the COVID sequences and they said that China has increased the amount of information that they are uploading and they said that this pointed appears that the variants in the genome sequences are similar to what has been circulating around the globe since July.

So, at this point, it doesn't seem to be a concern, at least from that point of view -- Whitney.

WILD: Paula Hancocks, thank you.

Coming up, next federal prosecutors following the money as we look at congressman-elect and confessed liar, George Santos.

Plus, Pope Francis requesting prayers for his predecessor Pope Benedict.

And thousands of migrants at the southern border waiting and wondering.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Her question is to the people of United States, to the government of the United States, why don't they want her here?




WILD: Welcome back.

Officials in El Paso, Texas, building a temporary processing center to host up to 1000 migrants starting next month. The city is already struggling to deal with the migrant surge.

CNN's Leyla Santiago has more there.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, what she wants now, she's hoping to get to Dallas to -- where she knows someone to be able to, as she has repeated, find a better future for her children and work.

Marveles Montecinos (ph) and her 1-year-old son just finished a four- months-long journey from Venezuela, through nine different countries, just to be here in the United States of America.

Her question is, to the people of the United States, to the government of the United States, why don't they want her here?

That sentiment echoed by many mothers here with their futures in doubt after the Supreme Court ordered Tuesday to keep in place the Trump-era Title 42 policy, while legal challenges play out in court over the next few months. Their policy allows the U.S. government to expel migrants legally seeking asylum before they've had a proper hearing. PASTOR TIMOTHY PEREA, EL PASO COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: It breaks me

because there's no directive. And what we're trying to provide with the minimal resources that we have is a direction, so they can go from point A to point B.

SANTIAGO: Over the past few months, tens of thousands of migrants have been surging to the southern border, creating a humanitarian crisis. It's left border towns like El Paso overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the challenges of providing care, food, and shelter for those in need.

MAYOR OSCAR LEESER (D), EL PASO, TEXAS: We've had as many as 2,500 crossings a day. And that's going to continue. And this is while Title 42 is still in place.

SANTIAGO: El Paso is preparing for an even loner surge should Title 42 be rescinded, transforming two vacant schools into temporary housing.

LEESER: This is just a band-aid on a broken immigration system. The system has to be fixed, because we can't continue to go this way.

SANTIAGO: U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it's setting up a new processing facility in El Paso to increase capacity. It's one of ten new temporary processing facilities being added on the U.S./Mexico border. For now, local organizers in El Paso are asking people to just try to see the humanity in everyone.

PEREA: They're here, some of them are here. What are we going to do? It's time to step up. It's time to say, you know what, they're here, regardless if I'm a red shirt, blue shirt, whatever the case may be. Let's help out these people.


SANTIAGO (on camera): And as night falls here and temperature drops, the winds pick up, you can see that they are actually piles of blankets for those who will spend the night on the streets here. You know, as the country braces for what could be another potential surge of migrants, we've learned that the Department of Homeland Security also concerned about another potential surge. We obtained a memo that circulated days ago, warning of potential violent extremist attacks targeting migrants and critical infrastructure should the Trump era policy come to an end.

Leyla Santiago, CNN, El Paso.

WILD: The alarm keeps ringing on vulnerable infrastructure. Leyla Santiago, thank you so much.

All right. Let's turn now to around the country. Get some quick headlines from coast to coast.

The bodies of a man and two boys have been recovered from an SUV submerged in a Virginia river.


Two others are messing. Police say it looks like the driver had tried to cross a flooded road and was swept away.

The last man convicted of a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. The judge said his criminal history was a factor in the length of that sentence.

The mega millions jackpot now up to $640 million after no winning ticket came up Tuesday. The final drawing of the year will be Friday night at 11:00 Eastern.

Now to the most fascinating and compelling crime and justice stories this year, CNN's Jean Casarez has the top 10 of 2022.


JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mass shootings, explosive revelations in court, and the pardoning of thousands of Americans. The most gripping crime and justice stories of 2022.

Number 10, an inmate and his jailer together and on the run.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A manhunt is underway in Alabama.

CASAREZ (voice-over): Police say Lauderdale County, Alabama, Assistant Director of Corrections Vicky White helped Casey White escape, walking him out the door on the day she was set to retire.

The two were not related. But may have had a clandestine romantic relationship, authority said.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was a long-time trusted employee at our jail, and she just exploited the system.

CASAREZ: On the run for 11 days, the pair were eventually spotted in Indiana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 3A51 in pursuit --

CASAREZ: Police there gave chase, which ended in the car crashing. Vicky White shot and killed herself, Casey White was charged with escape and taken back to jail in Alabama.

Number nine, thousands of convictions for marijuana up in smoke.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.

CASAREZ: President Joe Biden pardoning Americans convicted in federal court of simple marijuana possession.

BIDEN: It's time that we right these wrongs.

CASAREZ: Biden also ordered a review of how marijuana is classified under federal law, which could be a first step toward easing criminal penalties.

Number eight. An author facing a decades-old death threat attacked.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Salman Rushdie is still in surgery right now after he was stabbed.

CASAREZ: The award-winning author was stabbed multiple times as he prepared to speak at New York's Chautauqua Institution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a lot of screaming and crying.

CASAREZ: The suspect, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, was held down by the crowd until he was arrested.

Rushdie lived in hiding after his novel "The Satanic Verses" was condemned by Iran's then supreme leader in 1989. Officials there denied any connection to the New York attack.

Rushdie survived, but reportedly lost use of an eye and hand. Matar pleaded not guilty.

Number seven. Actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard battle it out in a Virginia courtroom over defamation and domestic abuse.

AMBER HEARD, ACTRESS: He sacked me again.

CASAREZ: Depp sued over a 2018 op-ed penned by Heard, saying she was a survivor of domestic violence. Heard counter-sued.

JOHNNY DEPP, ACTOR: She threw the large bottle and it made contact.

CASAREZ: Depp testified he was the one physically and emotionally abused. Both also denied the other's claims.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I understand we have a verdict.

CASAREZ: The jury found Heard liable for defamation of a public figure, a difficult thing to prove and awarded Depp $15 million in damages.

They also found Depp defamed Heard in a statement made by his lawyer and awarded her $2 million. Heard appealed, but later settled the suit.

Number six. Brutal killings in a college town.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: There are still no suspects in the killing of four college students at the University of Idaho.

CASAREZ: Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves were stabbed multiple times likely in their sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This incident has shaken our community.

CASAREZ: But the case remains unsolved. Police have not located the murder weapon or identified a suspect. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every day you just wake up and think today is

the day we're going to hear something.

CASAREZ: Number five. The life of a man who killed 17 in a Florida school spared.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Life in prison without the possibility of parole on all counts for Parkland killer Nikolas Cruz.

CASAREZ: He pleaded guilty to killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Jurors split on if he should receive the death penalty. which means he will not be executed.


STACEY LIPPEL, PARKLAND TEACHER & SURVIVOR: You don't know me, but you tried to kill me.

CASAREZ: Cruz now in prison with no possibility of parole.

LIPPEL: You stole him from us and you did not receive the justice that you deserved.

CASAREZ: Number 4. It is being called the deadliest human smuggling incident in American history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Human tragedy in San Antonio.

CASAREZ: Fifty-three migrants died after being left inside an abandoned truck in the Texas heat. Others found alive, but barely.

CHARLES HOOD, SAN ANTONIO FIRE DEPARTMENT: They were suffering from heat-stroke, heat exhaustion.

CASAREZ: Two men were arrested and charged in connection with the transportation of migrants resulting in death. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

Number three. Alex Jones must pay.

BLITZER: A Connecticut jury's massive judgment against Alex Jones for spreading lies and conspiracies.

CASAREZ: Families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting and an FBI agent sued Jones and his company for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

ALEX JONES, RADIO HOST, INFOWARS: The whole thing was fake.

CASAREZ: For years, Jones called the 2012 shooting, where 20 elementary school children and six educators died, a hoax.

In Connecticut, 15 plaintiffs awarded more than $1.4 billion. And in a separate trial in Texas, two parents got nearly $50 million. Jones has filed for personal bankruptcy and his company has done the same. ROBBIE PARKER, SANDY HOOK PARENT: And I'm just proud that what we are

able to accomplish was just to simply tell the truth.

CASAREZ: Number two. An average of nearly two mass shootings every day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Communities across the country have been rocked by more deadly gun violence.

CASAREZ: Data compiled by the Gun Violence Archives shows there were more than 600 mass shootings where at least four people were shot excluding the shooter in the U.S. in 2022.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: We begin today with a tragic shooting in Buffalo, New York.

CASAREZ: Ten killed in a racist attack at a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Police in Highland Park are responding to a shooting at the city's Independence Day parade.

CASAREZ: Seven died and dozens were injured on July 4th outside of Chicago.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: We are learning more about the suspected gunman who murdered five people and injured dozens more at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs.

MICHAEL ANDERSON, BARTENDER, CLUB Q: I saw the outline of a man holding a rifle at the entrance of the club just probably about 15 feet from me.

CASAREZ: And now number one. Children killed at school, law enforcement failures, and demands for accountability.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The scene is still unfolding there at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.

CASAREZ: Police respond quickly --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shots fired inside the building in Uvalde --

CASAREZ: But for over an hour, they wait, not going into the classroom to confront the gunman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you stand there today, was this the right decision?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the benefit of hindsight, where I'm sitting now, of course, it was not the right decision.

CASAREZ: Law enforcement eventually entered the classroom and killed the gunman, but not before 19 children and two teachers were mortally wounded.

A Texas house committee described a series of failures and an overall lackadaisical approach by authorities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's mind-blowing because they had a lot of time.

CASAREZ: Robb Elementary will now be torn down, and 21 families will never be the same.

ANGEL GARZA, VICTIM'S STEPFATHER: She was the sweetest little girl who did nothing wrong.


WILD: That Uvalde story is far from over.

All right, turning now to Russia. Russia has launched what Ukraine is calling a massive missile attack. More than 120 missiles launched a targets across Ukraine. A short time ago, the government said that the airmen systems are working.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is live in Kyiv.

Ben, what do you have to say about all of this?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Whitney. We are at a house south of the capital, southeast of the capital, that was hit and apparently according to police at 8:30 in the morning it was hit.

The police said that debris from the missile that was intercepted landed right next to this house, and we spoke to one of the men. There are two people living in this house, a man and his elderly father, they were inside when this debris from one of the missiles that was intercepted by Ukrainian air defenses, hit right next to their house as you can see, massive destroyed.