Return to Transcripts main page


Severe Weather in the South

Aired April 28, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Tonight from the CNN CENTER in Atlanta, across the southeast tonight, the death toll is shocking and, sadly, it is rising. Two hundred and eighty-four now confirmed dead as a result of a huge outbreak of tornadoes. In this state, Georgia, 14 confirmed dead.

Most of the deaths so far, 195 of them, in the state of Alabama where one man says it looks like an atomic bomb went off in a straight line. Thirty-four people dead in Tennessee, 32 in Mississippi, 14 again as I said here in Georgia, eight in Virginia, one in Arkansas. Still warnings and watches across the region and across the country as we look -- as we continue to track.

Reynolds Wolf is standing by for us right now. The worst damage by far right there in Alabama. A mile-wide tornado hit Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, a short time ago university officials announcing two students from the university among that city's 36 dead. Our meteorologist Reynolds Wolf right there in the middle of it all. Reynolds, give us the latest and (INAUDIBLE) just as we bring you into the program, that devastation is just shocking.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: To be honest, John, I'm surprised there aren't more that have lost their lives in the storm. The idea that anyone happened to be in the direct path of this (INAUDIBLE) tornado that survived, that in itself is a miracle. The idea that as many died that have died is a tragedy but unfortunately it looks like we're going to see more added to that number as the hours and days go on.

You know we've been talking about the loss of life. We've been talking about the damage we have to the homes, to the -- to many of the trees. But it's some of the small things that really stand out. For example, if you look at this tree which is actually part of a tree that's about 60 feet long, this branch, this area that's broken off, maybe about 20 feet, but some of the areas close up, it's almost like it's been just kind of -- I guess carved away with a knife.

It's just been stripped clean. Then as we walk along, you can see there are all kinds of stuff that stuck in these trees, in the grass. You got things like a life preserver, kid's toys. All kinds of things like shoes here and there. A lot of things you would expect, a lot of roofing tiles, all kinds of insulation, just devastation. You know this is nothing unusual.

We've been seeing it all over the place and people have seen it not just up close and personal, John, on the ground, but as you can hear the helicopter, many people flying above, taking the aerial view. And it is, we've been told, a sight to behold -- John.

KING: And Reynolds, stay with me because I want to play for our viewers watching at home some of the amateur video that has come into us because one of the things we're hearing from so many people, and this is a part of the country that has experienced sadly with tornadoes, is about how wide they are, how destructive they are. As we watch this video, what it is that makes these particular tornadoes unusual, out of scope and context, if you will?

WOLF: Well, the thing that's so incredible about these tornadoes is really -- especially with this one is the duration of this tornado on the ground. Most tornadoes, John, don't last that long, sometimes only for a few seconds, most of them very weak. We refer to them as EF-0s or EF-1s, very, very weak in nature and again very short-lived.

That's where most of them -- that's what most tornadoes will be. But the larger ones are truly a rarity. In fact, something that may be -- this tornado possibly an EF-4 or EF-5, winds in excess of 200 miles per hour, there's only been two of those since 2007 recorded. So again, it doesn't happen that often. This might certainly be in that category.

So the thing that makes this unusual certainly the size, but the duration of time it spent on the ground. That is truly the destructive key.

KING: You had a conversation earlier today with the sheriff of Tuscaloosa. I want to share some of it with our viewers because it gives a sense of, again, in communities that have deep experience with tornadoes, how they are stunned by the power of these. Let's listen.


SHERIFF TED SEXTON, TUSCALOOSA COUNTY, ALABAMA: I have never seen a tornado like this in Alabama. We are -- we're dealing with just a number of different issues. Law enforcement officers found themselves having to do the same duties as fire officials with search and rescue and digging down and pulling people out and transporting them to the hospital. It was -- it was just one of those situations you do what you got to do, you get out and you help your neighbor.


KING: Reynolds, you grew up in Alabama. This is what you do for a living. When you're talking to people like this sheriff, like other officials again who have years of experience dealing with this, they all keep saying haven't seen anything like this or haven't seen so many at once like this. What's that tell you?

WOLF: What it tells me is how unique of an event this truly was. You know it didn't take anyone by surprise. In fact the Storm Prediction Center out of Norman, Oklahoma, had been predicting this for a while. I can tell you that Chad Myers, Jacqui Jeras, Rob Marciano they've all been forecasting a major event to occur. In fact, it's what we refer to as a moderate or even high risk for parts of the region but even when you have that warning, when it's put out the idea of it actually coming together, all the components to create this devastating event, you see the warning signs. But the idea of what it might mean in the future is very hard to wrap our minds around.

And then we look behind and we see what happened. Just a little over 24 hours ago, it's something that can take a lifetime to try to bring in. And for many people that time will never come. It is just -- it's a huge mess. And you know we mentioned the death toll. The number continues to rise.

We're going to see more rise. There are many people that are missing. I know the sun is unfortunately in this -- behind our shooter, Jonathan Shear (ph), our photo journalist, but I can tell you that in our vicinity, right in this area we're missing four children, four kids are missing, possibly within the piles of rubble that we have.

We've had rescue teams that have been out trying to find these bodies of these beautiful kids. Hopefully the situation's going to be different. Hopefully they will find them safe and healthy, but for every minute that passes we go from the possibility of this being a rescue to maybe even a recovery. Hoping that never happens. We're hoping for the best case scenario.

But unfortunately with every single moment that passes, the situation becomes more grim and that is something we're going to be facing throughout parts of not only Alabama but into Georgia, the Carolinas, back into Missouri, even into parts of Texas. And the severe weather season is really getting under way, so certainly a lot of dangers ahead. We've got to be ready.

KING: A sober assessment there from Reynolds Wolf of the urgent work -- the urgent work still to come tonight. Hopefully they make progress tonight looking for those still missing. We'll keep in touch with Reynolds in Tuscaloosa and our other correspondents as the hour continues.

The country hasn't seen an outbreak of tornadoes like this in years, so why now and why here in the Deep South? Let's check in with CNN meteorologist Chad Myers. He's in the Severe Weather Center and Chad, why?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: We had everything in place. We had all the ingredients, John. We had the humidity. We had the moisture. We had the jet stream in the right place. And we had a day where storms didn't line up. You've heard this term before, squall line. Squall line is when you get a bunch of storms that all line up and they charge ahead and they knock down trees because they make wind.

It's a wind event. All the storms are fighting with each other. We didn't have that yesterday. We had one storm. I'm going to take you back to when this storm, there's Tuscaloosa, right through there, that's where that track went. This was a super cell tornadic thunderstorm. It means the entire storm back here is rotating. The backside is rotating.

There's a separate low pressure on the back of this that's sucking everything from the ground right along the interstate, right there. And it traveled to the northeast and it moved right over Tuscaloosa. We don't get many of these days like this per year. It was what's called a high risk day.

It's just the term that the Weather Service uses. There's one, two, three. We could use that just the same. You have slight, medium and high and yesterday was high. The day before yesterday was high as well and that rarely -- does that ever happen. I can't remember two days that are high risk in a row.

The jet stream was there. The humidity was there. There was a cold front. Now I know you just landed in Atlanta just now and it's much colder today than it was yesterday. That cold front pushed that warm air up into the sky and it caused tornadoes. Why it's happened like this in the second half of April when we had nothing in the first half of April, we don't have an answer for that.

KING: Well, Chad, when we were out on the roads earlier before we came to the CNN CENTER, we saw the utility crews, lines of the trucks going forward to take out the trees, to try to fix the power lines. Obviously, recovery, search and rescue in the six southeast states the urgent challenge tonight, hoping to find the missing before things turn for the worse there. What about the rest of the country? Is the worst over in this region and what about the rest of the country as we speak tonight?

MYERS: Yes. The rest of the country is in good shape. There are still a couple of watches and just maybe one storm down just on the very outer banks of North Carolina that's still rotating. And we still have these tornado watches, which means yes, something could spin and make a severe storm. That could cause a small tornado.

And I don't want to minimize what an 80 or 100-mile-per-hour tornado could do. It could still do damage if it hits your house. But what we were talking about in Catoosa County here in Georgia had an EF-4. It's the first four that we know of, but nothing from Alabama has been categorized yet. The four just came out literally about 30 seconds before I walked out here, which means somewhere between 175 miles and 200 miles per hour that's a far cry from what we could possibly see, still, here for the next -- I would say hour or two across the eastern portions of North Carolina, the (INAUDIBLE) Virginia and maybe the low country of South Carolina.

There will be a few showers and thunderstorms down across north Florida, but they are not spinning. They are not severe. They will just make some rainfall. This is about over finally. And we don't see any severe weather -- we don't see any tornadoes on the horizon for the next seven days.

That said we've had a tornado reported every day for the past 10 days and obviously yesterday there could have been, I don't know, 50 or so. I know I've heard the number 160 tornadoes. There were 160 tornado reports. OK, that's different. If you have somebody that's four miles north of Tuscaloosa and seven miles south of Tuscaloosa and they report a tornado that's counted as two reports, but it was obviously the same tornado -- John.

KING: All right, Chad's going to stay with us throughout the hour as well as we try to continue to track this optimistic (INAUDIBLE) assessment going forward, but again the search and recovery, six southern states here. Alabama, 195 dead, Mississippi, 32, Georgia, 14, Virginia, eight, Tennessee, 34, Arkansas, one, that's 284 in all. And sadly, we know that number will go up as the crews search for those still missing.

We'll continue our coverage throughout the hour. We'll go to our correspondents in the field. We'll talk to officials in many of these key states and some families who survived these tornadoes. When we come back among those we'll talk to the governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour. And as we go to break, more images of this amazing, amazing power of these tornadoes and what they left behind -- this a scene from Alabama tonight.


KING: Pictures there outside Birmingham, Alabama, part of the devastation. Take a look at it. Take a moment to reflect. Look at the scope -- these tornadoes coming through, wreaking havoc. A tattered flag there, standing amid the rubble, 284 people confirmed dead already in six states in the south.

About 40 miles east of Tuscaloosa is where Birmingham is. The city's mayor says the tornado was, quote, "probably a mile wide when it came through". CNN's Martin Savidge spent the day in the Birmingham area, joins us now from Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham. And Marty, again, I said the same thing to Reynolds Wolf, as I introduce you, you start to see just in the frames behind you the scope of the devastation and the challenge going forward.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, John, yes it was a massive storm that came barreling through here about 6:00 local time last night and well, people were staggered by what they saw. A slice here of just some of what you see and what is remarkable, take a look, you know clearly the first room you look at, the dark wood there, would appear to be this was a room maybe for a teenage boy.

Then you pan across. This was a family, by the way, that had a lot of children. Pan across and you see the colors change. You can just see the room wide open. Clearly a room that looks like it belonged to a young lady. And then farther down, you can see where the family gathered -- for kitchen -- you know it's right there.

It's all displayed here. The thing is John this actually is -- this home was not hit directly by the tornado here. That's obvious. That is all collateral damage. It was the stuff that was flying through the air that made it look that way. If the home had actually been hit by the tornado, as is exemplified by many down the street where we can't get to there are no homes. They're cleared right down to the foundations. There's nothing left or if you do find piles of rubble there, it is usually a home that has come from some place far away that people look at that and say, I don't know whose house that is but that's not my house. That just shows you the impact of the way that this particular tornado and this community struck. It's quite inspiring, quite awe struck.

KING: And, Marty, what's the sense, as you explain the challenge and the devastation and the desertion because of the destruction of the homes, what is the sense in that community about the challenge of sheltering people, the challenge of at least giving those who have survived some temporary place to be?

SAVIDGE: Well, it's interesting, when you talk to people here and we came in here at 2:00 in the morning and started talking to people there, they were still in the business of trying to find those who might have been left behind. I saw Bill Dutton (ph) this morning, first light, first man I saw. He had that thousand-yard stare. He'd been out all night trying to find his mother-in-law.

And she had been on the phone to the family, saying, look, the storm's coming. She didn't have a basement. She said I'm going into the center part of the house. That's what you're supposed to do. Find (INAUDIBLE) farthest -- room farthest away from the windows, go in there and seek shelter. That's what she did. He came back after the storm.

He couldn't find her, couldn't find her because he couldn't find her home. He knew where she lived, found her driveway. The house wasn't there. We found some neighbors actually that were out returning for the first time to take a look at their houses, couldn't even recognize the landscape. Finally they realized where their house was because the woman recognized her car on top of their roof.

And so this is Charisse Hudson (ph) who we talked to. And she actually left their house before the storm because the power went out. Thank goodness she did. Here's how she feels about that decision now.


CHARISSE HUDSON, PLEASANT GROVE, ALABAMA: It was a blessing. And a couple or one of our neighbors said, well, I'm going to tough it out, you know, I'm going to stay home.

SAVIDGE: Do you know where that neighbor is?

HUDSON: I'm not sure.


SAVIDGE: Those are decisions John that are going to haunt people for the rest of their lives. Those that decided to go versus those that decided to stay.

KING: Incredibly moving and tragic. Marty Savidge for us on the ground near Birmingham -- Marty we'll stay in touch with you as well as the community there still searches and begins to think about rebuilding. Surveying the damage in Mississippi today, one man told CNN, quote, "it looks like something out of Kansas, not expected in Mississippi". At least 32 people now confirmed dead in that state from the tornadoes. The Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, joins us now on the telephone.

Governor, first thank you for your time on a challenging day and our thoughts and prayers are with you. Is that your current number, sir, 32 people confirmed dead?

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR (R), MISSISSIPPI (via phone): Thirty-two confirmed and that's what it was during the night, John, and we were worried that once daylight came, we might find that there were a number of bodies. That has not happened which is encouraging. I think it's a credit to the first responders in a lot of these little small towns where many of the communities hit were not even incorporated.

Some of them were little towns with a few hundred people. The first responders did a great job. The number has held firm. We had -- we had 51 counties involved in my state, more than half the counties in the state.

KING: What's that tell you, Governor? You understand tornadoes. You've lived them all your life. More than half the counties involved -- what's that tell you about the scope of this?

BARBOUR: Well, of course, it's unusually -- an unusually large number. The training effect of where you had tornadoes following tornadoes means that often you had -- the damage was much greater than you would normally see. This is the season for us. April is the season when we have many, many tornadoes.

And yesterday was just as bad as I can ever remember. And some people will make the argument it is as bad as it has ever been. Certainly, there's never been this number of tornadoes that were identified. Some of that is a product of technology. That we -- when a tornado exists for a minute or two, we signed it with this wonderful technology we have which saved lots of people's lives, by the way.

Also, the matter of reporting is better than it's ever been. But having said all that yesterday was an awful day with an awful big number of tornadoes and some of those were big tornadoes. And we feel terrible for our neighbors in Alabama. These tornadoes that roll through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham actually came out of Mississippi. And instead of dissipating, some of them apparently just got bigger and stronger. These super cells exploded.

KING: And, Governor, what's your sense now of the challenge in terms of shelter, needs and demands, power outages, needs and demands and because, as you mentioned, all your neighbors have been hit too? Often utilities, you know, share resources if Tennessee has a problem and Mississippi hasn't you can help out. If Georgia has extra crews, they can send them to help out. With the challenge now spread across all the neighbors will that complicate efforts to restore power to people? BARBOUR: One would think so because you -- obviously you do have these sharing agreements where people send in their crews. Remarkably though in my state, TVA was the utility that was principally hit because of the geography of the part of the state. And as of this afternoon, they were down to about 20,000 customers who didn't have power. At one point that was more like a quarter of a million and that's a real tribute to the job that TVA and rural electric power associations that work with them, the municipalities.

You got to be -- I have to be very proud of our local authorities and our local first responders who did a great job on search and rescue in terms of security. This is a terrible, terrible outbreak. And in some places of the state, just utter obliteration. Some little towns like Smithville, it's just unbelievable how much of the community was leveled. Yet our people are just tough and they are taking care of their own. And today we started the first step of making real progress.

KING: Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, sadly, 32 confirmed deaths there. Governor, we hope and pray with you that number does not go any higher and our thoughts are with you as you address this challenge. We appreciate your time on this busy day tonight, sir.

BARBOUR: Hey, John, thank you very much.

KING: Ringgold is in Georgia's northwest corner; it's just across the state line from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Today, Ringgold looks like a war zone. A councilman Larry Black joins us now live from there. And Councilman, let me just start by asking you, again, I'm asking everybody this, because you're a veteran obviously living in this area, living in this region. You have seen many tornadoes before and yet have you ever seen anything like this?

COUNCILMAN LARRY BLACK, RINGGOLD, GEORGIA: No, I haven't. Our city is devastated.

KING: And explain to me -- when you say "devastated," sir, it's a small town, small city. Take me through what you mean.

BLACK: OK. Last night after everything settled down a little, I got in my car. I drove through town. There were trees down. There were power lines down. I could hear gas -- natural gas seeping out of some of the lines that were around town close -- I got about two blocks from the house and I had to turn around and go home because I could not go any further, because of the trees that are on the ground.

KING: Where were you --

BLACK: There's one house -- pardon me?

KING: Where were you as this played out?

BLACK: I could not hear you.

KING: Where were you -- where were you? Were you at home when the tornadoes hit? BLACK: Yes, I was at home when the tornado hit. My wife and I were watching a local news station, and it had Ringgold, Catoosa County in the green, so we thought we were all right. About 8:15, we heard a freight train and we headed for the hallway to just -- try to get out of the way, and it lasted just a few seconds, and then it was gone from our home, and I wasn't real sure what to do. And we stayed in the hallway about 15 or 20 minutes or so before we got out and looked outside to see what was going on.

KING: You mentioned the freight train. That is, of course, the signature sound, when a tornado touches ground --


KING: -- in the sense. Your house damaged at all or you survived -- you're good?

BLACK: No, sir, my house -- I was very, very fortunate. I do not even have a roofing shingle out of place.

KING: And yet --

BLACK: There's a tree --

KING: And yet --

BLACK: There's a tree --

KING: -- describe how that feels -- I'm sorry, sir, we're having a little technical difficulty with the connection. So your house has almost no damage, not even a roof shingle loose. How far do you have to go before you see --

BLACK: That's correct. Just look out my kitchen window. The house next door to me, there's about 150-year-old oak tree that's about 15 feet or so in diameter. It went through the roof. You can go down the street -- there are trees down. I can go down what we call Ridge Street that -- and the way that I was trying to go over to City Hall and I could not get there because of the trees that were down.

They were -- the trees are all over the road. There are houses that are just torn to pieces. There's a dentist office it's torn up. There's a furniture store, it's torn to pieces. The roof is gone. The Ringgold Chrysler dealership, it blew out the windows in the dealership. It damaged some of the cars that he had on his lot for sale. I haven't been able to get up to one of the exits on the interstate but I'm told it's gone.

KING: Told it's gone.

BLACK: I'm told that the -- I'm told that everything is gone. And I haven't been able to get up there to it to see. But I'm told that McDonald's, the -- one of the hotels, I was told that it just collapsed, the Wendy's restaurant, the McDonald's restaurant, the Waffle House, several other restaurants are just devastated. They're gone.

KING: And so --

BLACK: We had a city --

KING: Go ahead -- go ahead, sir, sorry.

BLACK: We had -- we had a city crew that was requested to go over to a Ruby Tuesday to lift up a wall so that they could check under the wall, you know, for survivors.

KING: And --

BLACK: I don't know if that happened.

KING: Is it your sense, sir that there are still local residents missing?

BLACK: That I don't know. I have no idea on that.

KING: It's a small city. When you describe the scope of the devastation, as you just have, it begs the question, what's next?

BLACK: The cleanup is next. That's all we can do is to clean up, to do what we can to assist the folks who have been severely damaged and just start. We've got to start over on a lot of the things. I'm also told that the high school -- there's one wing missing from the high school. The -- what used to be the Ringgold Library, it's now an art center for there. It's flattened. And I'm told the destruction over near the high school is very bad.

KING: Councilman Black, we appreciate your sharing your thoughts, your insights and your observations with us tonight. And we wish you the best, sir, as you try to rebuild in Ringgold.


KING: Tough day we know and we appreciate your time, sir.

BLACK: OK, thank you.

KING: Thank you. Up next, we'll continue to show you the scope of the devastation across the south. We'll visit a local sheriff who, in addition to having his duties to tend to today, found out his family lost their home.


KING: Devastating images there. That is Philadelphia, Mississippi. You see the twister right there. Across the Southeast is dealing with this all day long.

Look at those dramatic images. That is Mississippi. Wow!

Now look at this, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Somewhat similar, somewhat different. These tornadoes, 100 tornadoes, a football stadium there in Tuscaloosa, 100 tornadoes estimated to have touched down.

And here we can show you, sadly, tonight, the toll across six Southern states: one confirmed death in Arkansas, 34 in Tennessee, eight in Virginia, 14 in Georgia, 32 in Mississippi. The starkest toll, 195 -- 195 confirmed deaths in the state of Alabama, 284 in all across these six Southern states -- devastating tornadoes. And we know that number, sadly, we know that number, sadly, is likely to rise in many communities. There are still people missing tonight.

We want to check in now with the sheriff who not only in addition to carrying out his responsibilities today had the sad news of knowing his own house was destroyed.

Patrick Cannon is the sheriff in Dade County, Georgia. It is in northern Georgia, as you can see on the map there, just along the borderline with Tennessee.

Sheriff, I know you're having a challenging day both personally and professionally. So, we appreciate your time.

Tell me what -- first, let me get the sense of what happened to you personally, your family. You have a wife and four children. What happened?

SHERIFF PATRICK CANNON, DADE COUNTY, GEORGIA: Well, our county suffered a -- the most massive storm I have ever seen in my lifetime. Our county took a devastating blow. And the -- you know, the results definitely was devastating to our community. We did lose a few lives here in Dade County.

And it was just -- you know, it's been a rough time. But our community has stuck together. Thanks to several different sheriff offices throughout the state of Georgia, state agencies, and we've been able to, you know, recover just fine.

KING: And your family's case, sir, your house was destroyed?

CANNON: Yes, it was. My family's safe. Everybody's done well.

KING: And you got them out of the house beforehand, is that right, told them to come to the sheriff's station?

CANNON: I did, yes, sir.

KING: Excellent --

CANNON: The estimated time was about 15 minutes to the sheriff's office, and they arrived right as the tornado hit.

KING: And you mentioned the work of the sheriffs. We salute al the first responders across the region, including you tonight, sir. Tell me about -- you mentioned this. It keeps coming up. It is striking for people who have such experience with severe weather and with tornadoes, whether we're talking to people in Alabama, in Georgia, in Mississippi. Everyone keeps saying, never seen anything like this. Describe what that means.

CANNON: You know, that's a very hard question. The amount of force that this storm had, the amount of damage that this caused, it's just -- it's hard to imagine. Unless, you know, I was in the helicopter earlier.

And I went across Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, and followed the path of the storm that took my house. And along with the other two tornadoes that hit Dade County. The devastation is just unbelievable. The power of this storm was, you know, absolutely unbelievable.

KING: And what is the situation -- obviously, thankfully, the tornadoes have passed your county, but what is your situation now in terms of power needs, shelter needs, supply needs?

CANNON: Well, the power company -- I just received a call from the power company. They're working as hard as they can. We don't have power to our water company, which is creating another problem. I've had to evacuate, of course, the facility here at the jail.

And the citizens are -- were running low on water in our tanks and we're about to receive a generator. And get it hooked up where we can run our water plant, you know, the sewage and sanitation is an issue. So, hopefully, we'll get power in a couple of days, we can get things back to as normal as we can.

KING: Obviously, it's an enormous challenge. But given the scope, given your neighbors, your neighboring counties and your neighboring states are all dealing with similar emergencies, is that complicating the response and the recovery? Because everybody is under such stress?

CANNON: Well, you know, we've had such a large outpouring of support throughout the state of Georgia. You know, it's not been a challenge for us here in Dade County. We've had everything that we've asked for. We're fortunate for that. You know, our hearts, our thoughts and prayers go out to so many, so many.

KING: Sheriff Patrick Cannon of Dade County, Georgia, in north Georgia, right along the Tennessee border -- sir, we appreciate your time tonight on a challenging day both professionally and personally. We wish your family and your community the best going forward, sir.

And as the sheriff noted, his community hit hard. His community is getting a lot of help.

In Georgia, 14 confirmed dead. In Alabama tonight, 195 --195 confirmed dead. And officials in Alabama think that count could go higher because some are still missing tonight.

Let's check in with CNN's Don Lemon. He is in Birmingham, Alabama.

And, Don, again, it's so striking to me when you talk to these sheriffs and these mayors and even our correspondents like yourself who have experience in this and you hear from everybody -- never seen anything like it.

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I've never seen anything like it. I have to -- in all honesty, John, I worked here about 14 years ago, and I talked to people often here. And they say, oh, nothing has changed, nothing has changed when you come back to Birmingham. When I came back today, a lot has changed. And I could see starting about 20 miles outside of the city, as we started to drive in, we started to see billboards that were down, just random trees uprooted, huge trees.

And we're here, we're about really 20 miles west of Birmingham right now, in a town called Pleasant Grove. Look at , you can see this tree. This giant tree has been here, I'm sure, forever, and it just completely uprooted it. You can see in the home behind me in someone's bedroom, and there you see the weights and the beds and all of the things that were hanging on the wall.

And as I walk here, I have to be a little bit careful, as you know from dealing with this sort of stuff, you got -- we're walking on what is someone's roof or was someone's roof. And you've got the nails and everything sticking out from -- that you can walk on.

And this is just the least of the hazards in this area. We were here and there were power lines that were still hot. We could smell gas.

At some point -- at one point, the gas was so strong in a neighborhood we were in everyone had to move back. They were getting headaches. We're in a neighborhood which was about six or seven miles from here, it's called Forestdale, right outside of Pratt City, which is not far from downtown Birmingham. It is just obliterated.

There was an apartment complex, maybe about 400 units. All of them are completely gone. The entire neighborhood is gone. Neighborhoods that are in surrounding areas are standing. And you know how these things are just random.

One lady who lives pretty close to the top of the hill, her home was one of the first hit. She's a grandmother. She's 77 years old. Her name is Della Johnson. She said the winds took her, made her fall down the stairs and she ended up under debris, under a gas stove that was still going. Take a look.


LEMON: Were you yelling for people to help you?


LEMON: What were you saying?

JOHNSON: "Help, help." But they couldn't hear me. And finally, they came to the back and then they called me and I told them -- they say, she's in the back, and they said, watch out, because the gas, and the gas was seeping. And, you know, I could get all that gas but I got out.

LEMON: You were under the stove and the gas was going?

JOHNSON: I was on the steps and all that was on me.

LEMON: Did you think you were going to make it out?

JOHNSON: You know, I really didn't think. I just asked God, I said, "Lord, if it's my time, just let me come home and be with you."


LEMON: And it is just unbelievable. Your heart can't -- you can't help but just to feel for those people and to want to pray for them and want to help them out.

Here's the interesting thing -- as you look around at all of that debris, that entire neighborhood really gone. The trees are sheared off, about every structure was flattened. The cars ended up, some people don't even know where their cars are, John.

They said after it all happened, all the neighbors came out and gathered in the middle of the street. A couple hundred of them started hugging each other and crying and praying. Then they said, hey, everybody's not accounted for. And so, they started going door to door themselves looking for people. And that's how they found Della and many other people in that neighborhood, especially the young guys -- the young guys in the neighborhood. The 20-somethings, 30- somethings, started going door to door and trying to find people and pulling people out of the rubble.

And today, as we saw in Hurricane Katrina and so many other disasters, the marks on the house, John, you know, the Xs, to find out if anyone is there, they were going through today, the firemen, asking, is everyone accounted for in this home, and marking on the homes themselves with that orange spray paint we've seen so much of.

KING: Hey, Don, what do we know about the shelter challenge? Obviously, you're standing in a neighborhood that is deserted. It's not only destroyed, but it is a ghost town. Are people doing OK in terms of the capacity of the shelters, the supplies to the shelters?

LEMON: Well, people are doing OK, as far as they can be. No one expected this. And there are thousands of people, thousands, who are homeless right now.

To be quite honest with you, I know they're getting help from the federal government. They're getting help from the state government and the local government and from the Red Cross. But they're just simply is not enough room for all of these people.

And this is so devastating. I just don't think they have the resources, at least not initially, to house all those people and to find homes for them, to find food and to find shelter. People were literally walking as we drove up today. And we started walking through the neighborhoods with plastic bags of their belongings, what was left of their belongings.

So, as far as the challenge when it comes to shelters, that's going to be a big challenge because they simply don't have the resources. They're going to need a lot of help.

KING: Don Lemon on the ground for us in Birmingham tonight -- Don, we'll stay in touch with you as well.

We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to continue to track these devastating tornadoes and the impact of them across the South.

We're also going to follow another big breaking news story today. The president shakes up his national security team. A general, you're well aware of, he's going to return to civilian life.

But as we go to break here this afternoon, the White House announced the president will visit Alabama tomorrow where we just saw Don Lemon. It is the state hit hardest by these tornadoes. The president will visit Alabama tomorrow. This afternoon, he offered his thoughts and prayers to all those people across this region who have been hit by these devastating tornadoes.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In a matter of hours, these deadly tornadoes, some of the worst that we've seen in decades, took mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors, even entire communities. Others are injured. And some are still missing. And in many places, the damage to homes and businesses is nothing short of catastrophic.

We can't control when or where a terrible storm may strike. But we can control how we respond to it. And I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover.



KING: Welcome back.

If you're just joining us, we continue to track the tornadoes across the South. But here's some other late breaking news you need to know right now:

This afternoon, at the White House, President Obama introduced the new members of his national security team. CIA Director Leon Panetta, he'll move over to the Pentagon to take the place of the retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates. General David Petraeus will retire from the military and become the head of the CIA.

Well, the general had a few cryptic words today about his current mission as the military commander in Afghanistan.


GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: As I return to Afghanistan tomorrow, I will do so with the sense of guarded optimism about the trajectory of the mission and the exceptional civil military team the president will nominate to lead that effort.


KING: That team is led by Marine General John Allen who will replace Petraeus and Bush era ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who President Obama is now asking to take over as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

We're just hours away from the big event in London. CNN's coverage begins, get up early, folks, 4:00 a.m. Eastern. Both Prince William and Kate Middleton have brief and separate public appearances today in London.

The crew of the space shuttle Endeavour -- well, they won't make the wedding. They're scheduled to head into space tomorrow. You'll see that live right here on CNN as well.

When we come back, 284 confirmed dead across the South; hundreds more -- hundreds more -- forced from their homes because of the devastating tornadoes. We'll check in in Birmingham with a Salvation Army official trying to help those desperately in need a shelter tonight.


KING: Images there from just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. You see a dog making his way across the damage of the tornadoes that hit last night.

Two hundred and eighty-four confirmed dead in all across six Southern states, 195 of those deaths in Alabama. Obviously, with that destruction comes a need for shelter. The Red Cross reporting at least 1,600 people sought refuge in shelters last night. Today, in Alabama, some 335,000 people still don't have power tonight.

Aid agencies, of course, are gearing up to help.

Joining us now on the phone from Birmingham is the Salvation Army Major Todd Smith.

And, Major, let me just start with a simple question. Tonight, how many people are you serving? And do you have everything you need to help them?

MAJOR TODD SMITH, SALVATION ARMY: Well, we're serving probably about 1,000 a day. I have to apologize my voice. I've been going for about 28 hours.

Do we have everything? No. Right now, excuse me, the evaluation of what the needs are. So, we're working on that and we'll finish that today. We will continue providing services. We're feeding several thousand a day at four different locations throughout the Birmingham area. We have additional personnel coming in this evening to be able to ramp a little more on the week.

It's -- it really is devastating. And it's very difficult to try to meet the needs when there are so many hundreds of individuals who have no place to stay. They're staying at their houses, which is simply now nothing but a pile of rubble.

And I met a lady this afternoon who literally, although she's safe and grateful for that, she's literally using a plastic rake to try to sweep up the broken rubble of two-by-fours in her yard because she wants to fix it. She wants to make it right again. But there's nothing that can be done other than bulldoze it out of the way and hopefully maybe build new.

KING: Major, if there's somebody watching tonight, obviously, if they're not right from your community, they can help provide shelter. And I assume that's being done in schools and other larger facilities that you do have. What could somebody watching in another part of the country do to help you tonight?

SMITH: Well, the most significant thing that really helps in -- aid agencies are saying, well, send your money. But the truth is that the monetary donations make it so that we can, in fact, go out and help for the very specific needs that families and individuals have. We have a lot of support that's here locally with goods and those types of things. And it will cost a great deal for putting people in, whether it's in apartments, whether helping to rebuild, whatever those needs are. It will take a great deal of funding to provide.

And we're here, we'll work and we do everything we can to help make sure that all these individuals get back into homes and somehow and someway at least try to restore their lives into some resemblance of what it once was.

KING: Major Todd Smith of the Red Cross in Birmingham, Alabama -- sir, we salute your efforts and your agency's efforts tonight. Tell you've obviously been going for 28-plus hour, as you said. We wish you the best in the hours and days ahead, sir.

We want to go back now to Ringgold, Georgia. It is in northern Georgia, right along the Tennessee border. We want to talk now to a tornado survivor, Kimberly Cooper.

She was in her home last night when the storm hit.

And, Kimberly, let's just start right there. Let's start right there and tell me what it was like when you heard this coming.

KIM COOPER, RINGGOLD, GEORGIA TORNADO VICTIM: It sounded like the combination of, like, a loud Mopar engine, a semi-big old train and like a helicopter blade all really loud.

KING: Did you have much warning?

COOPER: No, no, didn't have much warning at all. The power went out about, say, 8:30 and shortly thereafter, my son had said that the sky was -- had turned really bright, and then he turned around and said it was really dark. And that's when my husband got up and looked out the backdoor. And about then is when he hurried up and slammed the door and said run. And he jumped on top of us in the hall way.

And then the house shook and --

KING: Yes.

COOPER: -- do what?

KING: He jumped right on top of you in the hall way?

COOPER: Yes, yes. He knocked us down to the floor and in case anything were to fly through the windows. And then as soon as the house stopped shaking and the noise had pretty much cleared, we jumped out, looked outside at the front porch and all you seen is this great big old blackish cloud spinning around with debris. And it went by so fast. It was really quick.

KING: Have you lived there all your life?

COOPER: No, sir. No, sir. I've been here for -- oh, say about 11, 12 years.

KING: Ever seen anything like this?

COOPER: If I said no, actually being right in it, I could say no that I've never, but I used to drive semi for 10 1/2 years, so I've been to where I've had to park the semi and stuff to where while tornadoes went by. But yes, it's -- it's just a blessing that you know that you survived stuff like this and through all of it.

KING: Kim Cooper, we wish the best for you and your family the best as you go forward and your community as well. And we thank you for your time tonight.

Kim Cooper is in Ringgold, Georgia. Again, that's right along the Tennessee border, near Chattanooga tonight. There you can see some of the devastation behind here.

Quick break here, when we come back, more of the striking images. Again, 284 people confirmed dead across six Southern states. We will show you the power of the tornadoes causing that toll, when we return.


KING: I'm going to update on the latest toll, the tornadoes hitting six Southern states. The death toll in Georgia has just been raised to 15. That means in these Southern states, you see them right there, the total, 285 now confirmed dead in these states. That count sadly expected to rise.

Obama will visit Alabama tomorrow. That state hit hardest, 195 deaths in the state of Alabama.

That's all for us tonight. We hope to see you tomorrow.

"IN THE ARENA" up next. As we go to break, some powerful images of these devastating tornadoes.