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Eastern Seaboard Slammed by Storms; Killer Storm Bears Down on Eastern U.S.; Ted Cruz's Debt Ceiling Drama

Aired February 12, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: storm gridlock, drivers abandoning their cars as snow brings traffic in North Carolina on the roads there on the highway to a halt.

Airline chaos. Thousands of flights are canceled, leaving would-be passengers stranded, as airlines are forced to cut their schedules.

Storm warning, much of the Eastern United States being told to brace for the worst as the storm moves north and intensifies.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, potentially catastrophic winter weather coating much of the South and the East right now with dangerous snow, sleet and ice.

It's brought traffic to a standstill on North Carolina highways, where people are abandoning their cars by the hundreds. The National Weather Service calls this a major winter storm. Tens of millions of Americans are under warnings this hour.

And things are expected to get worse. This storm is forecast to intensify as it moves up the Eastern Seaboard. It's already proved deadly, and at least nine people have now been killed in weather- related incidents. Almost half-a-million customers are without power right now. More than 3,000 flights already have been canceled, with the airports in Atlanta and Charlotte especially hard-hit.

Let's go to North Carolina right now, where some of the worst conditions have created a crisis. And it's playing out on the roads right now.

CNN's David Mattingly is joining us from Charlotte.

What's the latest there, David?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a real sense of deja vu as we're looking north to Raleigh, looking at what's happening there, too many people waiting too late to leave work today and running into way too much snow.

It caused a gridlock on the roads there. The state crews were having difficulty getting through the line of cars breaking through that gridlock so they could get the plows in there to actually break everyone free. There have been reports of people abandoning their cars, just leaving them there on the highway.

We have been told now that the state will be towing those cars at the owner's expense. Looking at the traffic cameras at this hour, it appears that some of that gridlock appears to be moving again, not very well, but it is appearing to be moving again at this hour.

Now, right now here in Charlotte, we had a lot of snow come down fast here, just like they did in Raleigh, but the city was prepared for it. Most people got away from their jobs before the snow hit here. Right now, we're seeing a lot of sleet coming down, a lot of -- a little bit of rain mixed with it. This is doing exactly what the forecast said it was going to do. And this, Wolf, is just the first act.

We just got the snow, now we're getting the sleet. Tonight, we're going to get that freezing rain, and depending on how widespread it is, there could be thousands of more people ending up in the cold and the dark tonight as the electricity goes out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is it your impression -- and you have been there now for a while, David -- the folks of North Carolina were warned about what was about to happen and that they were fully prepared for it? Clearly, this has been a disaster?

MATTINGLY: They were prepared here in Charlotte. And I can tell you why. They were definitely looking at what happened in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, making sure that they were going to stay out in front of this storm.

The state crews and the city crews were putting salt solution down on the roads 48 hours before the first snowflake even fell here. So that means that it wouldn't freeze quite so fast and the plows would be able to make better headway.

We have seen some very aggressive action here by the city, both on the expressways and on the city streets with plows coming through keeping as much cleared as they possibly can. And those plows jumped into action as soon as there was accumulation. Right now, the mayor has issued an emergency warning here that's essentially just saying that they're going to need assistance in terms of money and resources from the state and possibly the federal government to get through this, but the city so far seems to be out front and giving people the information that they need in time to make good decisions.

The governor here being very clear, don't go out tonight. If you have tickets to that UNC/Duke basketball game and you have to drive, don't, but if you can walk, fine. But that game is going on as scheduled.

BLITZER: Well, you haven't heard yet. They just canceled the game, David. We just got word, official confirmation. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill...


MATTINGLY: Well, there you go. BLITZER: ... they have just announced they have accepted the advice of the governor. An hour ago, he was here in THE SITUATION ROOM on the phone. He said he's not going to go. He hopes no one goes. They all stay put. If the players and the referees are the only ones there, he said that would be fine. They have accepted his advice and they have decided to cancel that big UNC/Duke game for tonight, which is probably smart.

MATTINGLY: Let me tell you what.

BLITZER: Go ahead, David.

MATTINGLY: Definitely a very good decision, because this is going to get worse by the hour. As the night goes on, as we continue to have more precipitation here, this snowstorm's going to turn into an ice storm and the roads that are even passable right now will not be passable a few hours from now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, better to stay home or wherever you are. Don't get on the roads right now. David Mattingly, thanks very much.

We have a firsthand account of that gridlock in North Carolina right now.

Mike Crosswhite is joining us on the phone from Raleigh.

Tell us what happened to you, Mike. What was going on? Where were you? Are you safe now or are you still in your car?

MIKE CROSSWHITE, TRAVELER: I am safe, Wolf. I'm home.

I left work about 1:30 and just got home at 5:30. I lost my cell phone signal and battery went down on me. So I was out of contact for a minute. I still have my spouse on the road and I'm in contact with her. She's probably about eight miles away, but the amount of time that equates to, I'm not sure. So I'm still concerned about her and making sure she gets home safely tonight.

BLITZER: And we are showing our viewers, Mike, some of the pictures that you shared with us. So what was it like in those five hours? Normally, it would take you how long to make that drive?

CROSSWHITE: Thirty-five minutes.

BLITZER: All right, so it took you five hours. What was it like?

CROSSWHITE: Just a -- I was very nervous at first because it took about an hour to get what normally takes five minutes. So I didn't even know I was going to be able to make it to the interstate. Folks were going off the side of the road and the stoppage prevented people from moving forward, along with the stoplights.

But we made it to the interstate and the traffic was actually a little lighter. So we were able to get it moving to 20, 25 miles an hour at a safe speed and make some headway there.

BLITZER: Did you ever think that it would be you might have to abandon your car?

CROSSWHITE: I got a little nervous about that for sure. I mean, I saw a lot of abandoned cars on the side of the road the entire way home, accidents in front of me, people sliding and slipping, but people were getting out of their cars and helping folks and pushing them out of the way and getting them started.

It really is a challenge on what might seem like a small hill. With this snow and the slickness and ice, it really prevents a challenge to keep moving forward.

BLITZER: Did anybody say to you when you got up this morning, this was not a day to go to work, just stay home?


CROSSWHITE: No, but I definitely had my eye on it. At 12:30, we starting getting some flurries, and it was just little flurries floating around.

And then it just came out and the sky just dumped on us. And it was like, OK, we are out of here. The traffic, with everyone leaving at the same time, created a certain bottleneck.

BLITZER: Yes. You're living through -- you have lived through what Atlanta was living through a couple weeks ago. Mike Crosswhite, thanks very much for sharing your story. We're happy you're safe and sound back home.


BLITZER: What is really scary is that people -- and a lot of people have already lost power, half-a-million or so. It's getting dark now. It's cold. And I'm really worried about the elderly who are stuck in their homes without electricity. That's awful, potentially a dangerous situation.

Chad, we will get right back to you.

We're staying with the breaking news this hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. It's not just the chaos on the roads, the killer storm forcing, as we just heard from Chad, lots of airlines to cancel their flights. Indeed, the cancellations are occurring by the thousands. We will get the latest on the air travel nightmare.

And we're also getting new video just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM just showing how bad the situation is on the North Carolina roads. More breaking news straight ahead.


BLITZER: We're getting reports of clogged roads, abandoned cars in and around several major cities.

Christina Martinson is joining us via Skype right now. She's joining us from Durham, North Carolina. Christina, I know you're pregnant and, as you describe yourself, very, very pregnant. What month are you in right now?


BLITZER: You're in your eighth month. Tell us where you were. You got stuck on the roads and you had a young child with you at the same time. What happened?

MARTINSON: Well, my husband and I carpooled in this morning in case things should get bad, but it happened a lot more quickly than we were anticipating.

And so by the time he got to me, it took us about the better part of two hours to get to as close to our son's day care as we could, and then he just left me in the car and took the stroller and walked the last quarter-mile to pick up my son. And when he got back in the car, it was pretty crazy.

My son was like, I'm wearing two pairs of pants. And then it took us another two hours to get home. And that's a drive that usually takes us about 10 minutes. We saw so many people -- just like cars piled up and left on the side of the road and wrecks. And we had to turn around three or four times.

It's really, really bad, and it got bad so quickly that people just weren't ready. Even though we were warned, it just happened more quickly than you would think possible.

BLITZER: Were you ever really, really frightened, scared what was going on?

MARTINSON: Only once.

The third time we turned around, we ended up having to cut through a neighborhood that's near our house. And we were going down this big hill and suddenly it just bottlenecked, and people had come through and tried to put sand, so that you could maneuver through the cars that were just abandoned.

And I don't know if there had been a wreck or if people got stuck trying to go up the hill, but it was nice that people who lived in the neighborhood were there directing traffic and helping us through. But, I mean, we were too scared to breathe. I tried to take a picture for you guys, but it was too crazy.

BLITZER: We keep hearing the same story. When you got up this morning, it wasn't too bad. You thought you would go to work, but then all of a sudden, around noon, 1:00, it really, really got bad. And then you tried to go home. Everybody basically left work at the same time and you got stuck for hours and hours.

We heard the same stories a couple weeks ago in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. So what's the major lesson you have learned from this, Christina? Next time they say it's going to start snowing, what are you going to do? MARTINSON: Well, if they say it's going to start snowing at 1:00, I think I will head home at noon this time.

BLITZER: Some people just didn't even go to work. Probably might have been a smart thing. Might have been a good day to just stay home.

MARTINSON: Well, it was so crazy because you looked outside and the streets were completely dry. I mean, it definitely looked like something was going to happen, but they kept changing the time.

And so it was like, well, we will go to work and then, you know, plan to leave early. And then it was just -- by the time we all got out of there, it was crazy. I mean, the snow already covered the whole street and people were just driving crazy.

BLITZER: Well, Christina Martinson, we're glad you're OK. We're glad your little boy's OK, your husband's OK. Good luck with the delivery in, what, a half-a-month or so as scheduled. We will stay in close touch with you. We're glad you're home safe and sound and warm right now, right? You haven't lost power or anything like that?

MARTINSON: No, no, knock on wood. We're warm and safe and not going anywhere.

BLITZER: Good. Stay put until this thing ends. Christina, thanks very, very much.

Let's bring in our meteorologist Jennifer Gray. She is joining us from Atlanta right now. She's outside.

People are happy right now they're home safe and sound, Jennifer, but if they lose power, half-a-million people have already lost power, it's getting dark right now. This is an extremely dangerous situation all around.


You know, the good news is that people have stayed home. People are off the roads. The bad news is, this is ice, this is sleet. It is freezing rain. It is definitely weighing down the trees and the power lines. And you're exactly right. This is what we're seeing all over town. There's probably about a quarter of an inch of ice on this branch.

We have been watching the ice just grow and grow throughout the day. It doesn't take much, Wolf, to bring down those trees, bring down the power lines, as we're already seeing. And it is cold. Temperatures are below freezing and they're not supposed to get above freezing until mid-morning tomorrow.

And so folks that have lost power, it is going to be a long night. In fact, we are still seeing the sleet and freezing rain come down. It's possibly going to change over into snow as we go through the overnight hours, but we still have a good 10 to 12 hours of this in Atlanta before this comes to an end. And so we will see much more before it comes to an end. Also, as we have been talking about as well, this is moving on. This is going into places like South Carolina, North Carolina, it's going up the mid-Atlantic. We're going to see places like D.C., Philly, New York and especially those areas inland away from the coast are going to get possibly a foot of snow by the time this is said and done as we go through the next 24 to 36 hours.

So this is far from over, Wolf, and folks in the Atlanta area, lucky they stayed home. I'm sure they're watching those pictures in North Carolina and glad they stayed home. But, yes, the power outages are going to be a problem because this is coming down. I just looked at the radar a few moments ago.

We are going to see another push come through of some of the heavier freezing rain and sleet. You can see it just picked up in the last minute or two that I have been talking to you, it's already starting to pick up a little bit. A long night ahead here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Everybody if they're inside, even if they're not at home, don't go outside right now. That could be very, very dangerous. Jennifer, thanks very much.

Joining us on the phone right now is Bill Bell. He's the mayor of Durham, North Carolina.

Mayor, what's going on in Durham right now? How bad is it?

BILL BELL, MAYOR OF DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA: A lot of snow. A lot of snow, combined with ice.

BLITZER: You have a lot of people stuck on the roads in Durham?

BELL: Well, we have some that are on some of the major highways. This thing really hit us almost sudden.

For example, I was having lunch at 12:00 over at Duke, and about 1:00 I came out and it looked like it just all came down. It took me about three hours to get back to my house, which is normally about a 15- minute drive.

BLITZER: Were you warned? Did you have -- did the folks in the Durham area have enough warning about what was about to happen?

BELL: We have had the warning. In fact, our people are out on the streets, the trucks out working with the state trying to clear roads. But as I said, this thing came down probably about 1:00 and it just seemed like -- heaven dropped on us.

BLITZER: What about power shortages? Because this is a nightmare for so many people, especially it's so cold, it's dark, elderly folks. Are you having a serious problem with power outages?

BELL: Fortunately, we haven't had outages reported here in Durham. But we're prepared for that in case that happens. In fact, some of our -- two major malls have kept their shops open for stranded motorists along the interstate highways.

But we're prepared for any outages. If people need to go to places, shelter, we have that open for them also.

BLITZER: Do you have enough help from National Guard and from others who are trying to help with stranded people in their cars or on the side of roads?

BELL: As far as I know, we have not had to call the National Guard, but I'm sure the governor has declared a state of emergency. I have declared a state of emergency for the city of Durham. If that's needed, I'm sure we will be able to get them out there.

BLITZER: Shouldn't you or other authorities in the North Carolina area -- I asked this question to the governor this morning -- have told people this morning, you know what, this is not a good day to go to work? I know you canceled schools. But don't go to work because around midday the snow and the ice is going to start -- they're going to start coming down and you're going to be stuck in traffic?

With hindsight, should folks have been told stay home?

BELL: You can't tell people to stay home. You can suggest they might want to stay home and stay off the roads and that message has been going out ever since we knew the storm has been coming.

BLITZER: And so but did you do that? Did you tell people to stay home?

BELL: We didn't -- I didn't tell them to stay home. I told them that given the weather conditions, we wanted to make sure they stayed off the roads as much as possible. Again, this was not supposed to break until 12:00, 1:00, and I think people were taking that into account when they made decisions of whether or not they were going to be out or not.

BLITZER: What do you anticipate? How long is this crisis going to affect the folks in Durham?

BELL: I have declared a state of emergency at least until 12:00 tomorrow, and then we will play it by ear and see how it goes from there. We expect this thing to be over some time around Friday, tapering off Thursday.

BLITZER: You have canceled school tomorrow and Friday, right?

BELL: Schools have been canceled.

BLITZER: And people are told stay home, this is not a good time to go outside.

BELL: Right. You might know -- there's a big game going on, UNC and Duke. And we're telling people to stay home and look at it.


BLITZER: We're told, Mayor -- you may have not heard, but they have canceled the game tonight.

BELL: Well, that's new news to me. Thank you for telling me for that.

BLITZER: Yes. They have canceled the game. The governor was on our program about an hour-and-a-half ago or so and he said he wasn't going to go. He hoped no one went.

Maybe just the players and the referees. He thought it was too dangerous to be on the roads to go to the big UNC/Duke game. We're told now it has been canceled. They will reschedule.

That's good news to you, right?

BELL: Very good news.

BLITZER: Yes. I know you were worried about all those folks and we're glad they decided to cancel that game.

Mayor Bill Bell of Durham, thanks very much. Good luck to you and good luck to all the folks in Durham.

BELL: Thank you and take care.

BLITZER: All right. We want to share you some brand-new video we're just getting in here in THE SITUATION ROOM .

It was shot from a drone, yes, a drone over Raleigh, North Carolina. It shows you just how powerful this storm is right now. You will see the video coming in. It's coming in a second. You will see it from the drone. All right, just let's watch this video coming in. You will see it coming in.

A CNN iReporter sent this in, this video. There you see it right there. You can see how powerful the storm is, this video coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM, courtesy of a CNN iReporter. You can see the shot from a drone flying overhead, managed to get this pictures for us.

The storm is also forcing the airlines to cancel flights by the thousands, more than 3,000 flights already today.

CNN's Rene Marsh is working this part of the story for us.

Rene, what are you picking up?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the lesson here is sometimes your luck really depends on the airline that you pick.

When you look at Delta, for example, they had the most cancellations today. We're talking about 1,700 cancellations. It makes sense because their hub is in Atlanta. Atlanta got hit ready hard today. Tomorrow they're projecting about 1,200 cancellations.

JetBlue, on the other hand, they have had a really rough winter. So far today, though, only 41 cancellations, but tomorrow as the storm makes its way to the New York area, they're projecting some 300 cancellations. But what about the planes that do get in the air? Today, we went behind the scenes to take a look at the operation that coordinates thousands of planes despite a major storm on the move.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Atlanta with the freezing rain, we will check in with them. It is starting to snow now at Charlotte, so no changes to that.

MARSH (voice-over): Conference calls every two hours inside the FAA command center as another winter storm moves up the East Coast dumping rain, ice and snow.

On the call, airlines, airports and air traffic control. They're coordinating how to get planes around this winter storm and minimize traveler delay.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have been bumped about -- this will be the second or third time. It's like I'm trying to quit counting.

MARSH: Six large screens display the storm, planes in the air and planes grounded. At Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, the busiest in the world, planes are parked.

(on camera): I see a lot of blue by Atlanta. What are you monitoring here?

TONY TISDALL, FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION: This is one of our primary traffic management tools. And the blue is actually the cancellations that are coming in from the carriers.

MARSH: Atlanta is down to nothing.

TISDALL: Atlanta is pretty much getting down to nothing.

MARSH (voice-over): All airports have a weather plan, and this FAA command center in Warrenton, Virginia, helps coordinate the execution by communicating with 21 regional centers.

(on camera): You're doing real math here as far as how many planes can you de-ice per minute?

TISDALL: Once an airplane de-ices, we want to minimize that time from that happening to them departing. So that's where the numbers really start slowing down a little bit. We don't want to put anybody in a position where they're staying on the ramp where they have go back to de-ice.

MARSH (voice-over): You could call this the calm during the storm. It really gets busy here after the system passes and airlines scramble to get their planes back into the air.


MARSH: At airports like Raleigh, all flights in and out canceled and some airlines have already started canceling their overnight flights at other airports. That means that those planes will not be in place in the morning, so fliers should expect another rough morning tomorrow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Think about it before you head out to the airport for sure, because the planes night not be taking off hey guys. Rene, thanks very much.

We will continue to follow the breaking news right after this.


BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news. We're showing you live pictures coming in right now, Charlotte, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina. You can see some traffic on the roads. Not a whole lot. Most people are heeding the advice of authorities: stay inside. If you're home, stay at home. If you're at work, stay at work. Don't get on the roads right now; potentially very, very dangerous.

I spoke about what's going on with the North Carolina governor, Pat McCrory, just a little while ago here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We spoke to him about the crisis playing out on the state's roads and highways.


GOV. PAT MCCRORY, NORTH CAROLINA (via phone): We want them to stay in their car, don't abandon their car unless there are certain elements that are requiring them to get out in very, very cold weather. We have a system that we've set up where we can come rescue those individuals in their cars. And that's our incentive at this point in time, is to help the people get out of their car, and then unblock the traffic.

The dilemma is once they abandon their car, they block all the traffic, including the emergency operation vehicles; and they're putting other people at risk on these major highways and thoroughfares.

BLITZER: I spoke to two young women who did abandon their cars on these highways in North Carolina just a little while ago. They've walked, went to a hotel not that far away, but she did get frostbite. Fortunately, there were some nurses there to take care of her. Another managed to get home. Are they -- It says here that these people, if their cars are towed, they will have to pay for the towing. Will these two young women have to pay for their cars being towed?

MCCRORY: Most likely. If they don't pay it, someone has to pay for it. But we care for these two women. We would have preferred they stay in their cars so we could help them, not get frostbite because the outside elements are so bad.


BLITZER: The governor of North Carolina with me a little while ago. We're joined now by a North Carolina woman who was forced to abandon her car on that snowy highway. Natalie Kotuby is joining us via Skype from Raleigh.

You heard what the governor had to say, Natalie. What's your reaction?

NATALIE KOTUBY, ABANDONED CAR ON HIGHWAY: I -- honestly, I can see where he's coming from. I understand that emergency vehicles have to get through.

However, I feel like he could be a little bit more compassionate for those of us who really didn't have any other option. I had many cars that were blocking my way. And I thought it was probably the best thing to do at that point, instead of trying to continue driving my car and potentially, you know, get into an accident and hurt somebody else or myself. And I just thought that it was best to get off the road.

BLITZER: So you abandoned your car and you walked. And you got home. Fortunately, you're OK, but your car is still stuck someplace on the highway over there, right?

KOTUBY: It is. I tried my very best to push it -- or to drive it quite far over, to keep it out of the way as much as I could, but hopefully, it's over far enough so that, if emergency vehicles have to pass through, they're able to.

BLITZER: and if it's towed, you heard the governor say, and we heard the spokesman for the Department of Transportation in North Carolina say earlier if folks abandon their car, they may have to pay for the towing. You ready to pay for the towing?

KOTUBY: I mean, if that's what I have to do, that's what I have to do. I'm safe, so that's, you know, what's important to me right now.

BLITZER: You got home safe and sound. And just remind us. Why did you decide to leave the warmth -- you had enough gas, I assume, in your car, right?

KOTUBY: I did.

BLITZER: Why did you decide to leave the relative warmth of the car and just start walking?

KOTUBY: You know, it was one of those things either I could continue staying there for hours and, you know, potentially risk running out of gas, or I could go ahead and try my best to get home. And I just decided to wing it and try to get home as fast as I could.

There were so many cars that were along the road in front of me, and there were cars that were swerving all over the road in front of me. And so I just decided to park it as far over as I could, then get going.

BLITZER: Well, we're glad you're home safe and sound. Hopefully, your car will be safe and sound, as well, Natalie. Thanks so much. Good luck.

KOTUBY: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news. This is a killer storm hammering the south, moving up the East Coast. The Washington, D.C., suburbs they are next in line.

CNN's Athena Jones is in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of the nation's capital. She's looking at the cost of this storm. What are you seeing, Athena? What are you finding out?


Well, of course the storm hasn't made its way here yet. We are beginning to see just a few flakes falling.

But I'm coming to you from a salt depot here in Northern Virginia. You can see we're right next to a very busy highway. This is the capital beltway. It's a major artery this in area. All of this salt that's being poured into these trucks. That salt is going to be going to clear -- make sure roads like this highway stay clear.

We've been watching trucks lining up the past several hours, getting filled with salt and heading out. Northern Virginia is the point, 4,000 trucks that make sure that roads, not only major roads but also roads and subdivisions stay clear.

Now where is all that salt coming from? It's coming from right down here. You can see the large structure and the doorway through it. Imagine the weight of 100 Statues of Liberty. That's about 22,000 tons. That's how much salt this shed can hold.

This facility was built after those big storms we saw in February of 2010, where areas in this region saw as much as two to four feet of snow over just the course of the first ten days of February.

And so I believe we have a graphic. This salt truck you can see moving out. I believe we have a graphic to show some of the statistics we have from the Northern Virginia Department of Transportation. They say they're ready. In addition to these 4,000 trucks they're deploying, they have 65,000 tons of salt on hand. So none of the kinds of salt shortages we've been seeing in places like New York City and Long Island.

All told, they believe that this storm is going to cost at least $25 million. That's the cost of putting all these trucks on the road, having these workers work 12 hours on, 12 hours off.

On our way here, several hours ago, we saw trucks already staged on the freeway. So that gives you an idea of how long these folks will be working.

Now just north of us in Washington, D.C., they're also getting ready. I spoke with the mayor's office earlier today. They're going to be declaring a snow emergency at 6:30. That's mainly to keep the cars off major roads. They can make sure those are clear.

And also, of course, all across the region people have been flocking to hardware stores and supermarkets to stock up on things like shovels and groceries like bread, milk and water, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's going to be a bad situation here in the nation's capital area as it heads towards New York and beyond. Our thanks, Athena. Thanks for that report.

We'll continue the breaking news coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Just ahead, our own Ed Lavandera, he's been driving around this mess. He'll join us for a complete update on what's going on. Stay with us. Our continuing coverage resumes in a moment.


BLITZER: We're continuing to follow this very, very dangerous snow and ice storm moving from the south up the East Coast of the United States. CNN's Ed Lavandera has been taking a very close look at what's been going on, on the roads.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A deadly ice storm is pummeling the southeast and headed toward the major cities of the East Coast. There are grounded flights, downed trees and widespread power outages. Major traffic issues near Raleigh, North Carolina's capital city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (via phone): Everybody who was at work decided they were going to go home at that point, so they all ended up on the roads at the same time.

LAVANDERA: The governors of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina have all declared states of emergency.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From the federal government we have received word that they have expanded their declaration to include the 89 counties that we had expanded the declaration to include, and we have asked that they add the additional two counties, which we have every reason to believe that they will do so.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): In and around Atlanta, residents are staying at home. Schools are closed. Streets are desolate, coated with ice -- an abundance of caution in preparation leading up to this storm in an effort to avoid scenes like this from two weeks ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The house is getting a little cold. We've got the fireplace going. We're using gas. We're using whatever else we have. We've got whatever else we can we have battery backup and radios.

LAVANDERA (on camera): How quickly has the temperature dropped in the house, after you lost power?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's almost as cold as everyone in the house except the main hallway, just cold inside as it is out right now.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Bob Clark was one of the first to lose power early Wednesday morning in Stone Mountain, Georgia, when he heard an electrical transformer explode. Crews have worked all day to repair the lines in the freezing rain. Clark says this time around in the Atlanta area, it's nothing like the ice-pocalypse disaster from two weeks ago.

Sadly, it seems this maybe the Carolinians turn to test their storm preparedness.


LAVANDERA: And, Wolf, you can see a live picture of power crews working on a neighborhood east of the Atlanta area. This is a power transformer that blew earlier today, around 6:00 in the morning. Crews are still working into the night here.

And now, you can see what a lot of people in this region will be dealing with as we start pulling away, and you can see that the sleet- like conditions are falling pretty heavily. And these roadways will be quite a mess throughout most of the night and only worsening as we continue to move into the darkness of these hours.

But the good news is, Wolf, there's a lot of people staying off of the roadways. Only seeing a small handful of cars out there, but these roadways will only continue to get worse and we have to wait and see what it looks like tomorrow morning -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the other bad news is people are losing power in their homes. It's cold outside. It's dark, and I'm really worried about all those folks, especially the elderly who are going to be without power.

Ed Lavandera, on the scene for us, as we always is -- thank you very much.

We're going to have much more on the breaking news. This historic storm moving from the South, up to the East Coast of the United States. But I want to get to another major story that's breaking.

The Senate voting a little while ago to raise the nation's debt ceiling through March of 2015. The measure now awaits the president's signature.

The vote itself was not without drama. Ted Cruz, the freshman senator from Texas, he forced his fellow Republicans to stick their necks out. Didn't exactly win him a lot of friends among those Republicans who were forced to do so.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is following all the drama today. It was a couple dramatic couple of hours. We didn't know what was going to happen.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You know, Ted Cruz has never been shy about not really caring if he's the stump at the Senate Republican garden party if it means standing up for conservative principles. That was clear when he pushed the strategy that led to a government shutdown in the fall and it was clear again today when he filibustered raising the debt ceiling, knowing it would put a lot of his colleagues in political danger. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): This vote was never going to be easy, but this was high drama. For 45 minutes, the Senate was in limbo, two votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster waged by Republican Ted Cruz on raising the debt ceiling.

Thanks to Cruz's tactics, what Republicans feared most, putting the nation's credit and Americans' stock portfolios at risk, was about to happen.

Then suddenly, the Senate's top two Republicans walked the political plank together. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and his number two John Cornyn approached the desk to vote yes. Both McConnell and Cornyn are facing primary challenges from the right. Both knew full well voting to allow more borrowing to pay the country's debt would give ammunition to their conservative opponents but they did it anyway. That was the 60 votes needed to break Cruz's filibuster.

But Republicans decided they need more. The search began for other GOP colleagues to switch their votes to yes to give their senate leaders political cover.

Finally, Susan Collins emerged with a group of Republicans who agreed to vote yes -- John McCain, Orrin Hatch and others taking one for the team, helping to pad the margin and share responsibility.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The votes on the motion are 67 in favor, 31 against.

BASH: Quickly followed by final passage on a party line vote, something most Republicans wanted in first place without the drama of Cruz's filibuster.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On this vote, the ayes are 55, the nays are 43.

BASH: Fifty-five Democrats voting yes. All Republicans voting no.


BASH: Republican leadership sources I speak to underscore that their goal all along was to save Republicans from a losing fight that could hurt the economy so much it can jeopardize Republicans chances to take the Senate and even possibly to keep the House. But Cruz, as you know, has always positioned himself as somebody who is the keeper of conservative principles.

He issued a blistering statement after this vote, saying that leaders in the Senate are more willing to mortgage their children's future because they want praise from the Washington media.

BLITZER: So he's not backing down at all?

BASH: Not at all, not at all. Full steam ahead.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very, very much. We're going to continue to follow breaking news on the weather right now. Huge snow and ice storm moving from the South up the East Coast. We're going to get the latest forecast.

We'll also talk to a storm chaser right after this.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. We're just getting some new video in showing how bad the conditions are as the snow is piling up, the ice piling up in North Carolina. Roads, vehicles are slipping and sliding unable to get any traction on the ice, a number of accidents growing by the hour.

Matt Robinson, by the way, took this video. He's joining us on the phone right now from the Raleigh, North Carolina.

What was it like, Matt?

MATT ROBINSON, RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA (via telephone): It was a pretty fast scenario where I looked outside and, you know, it was pretty clear. I think that's what most people saw and then within about maybe 20, 25 minutes, the roads started getting covered and then that's when immediately people lost traction and the video shows what happened next.

BLITZER: This is about as bad as it's been a snowstorm and ice storm in North Carolina, what, for almost ten years you haven't had anything like this, is that right?

ROBINSON: Yes, I can remember back in 2005, everyone remembers around here that there was something -- we didn't have as much snow but the road conditions were similar and -- but I definitely don't think people are used to dealing with driving in these conditions.

BLITZER: As we see in this video you shot for us that we're showing, these cars and their trucks, they're trying to move but the roads are just jam pack full of ice.

ROBINSON: Yes, it's actually -- I shot the video from my front porch so I didn't have to go far but I live on a hill and once someone gets stuck, everyone kind of bottlenecks in line and then they don't -- they can't get past. Some lady tried to get impatient and that causes a lot more problems. Yes, it's not something -- I'm glad I'm not -- I wasn't in that myself.

BLITZER: You know, I grew up in the north, in the Buffalo area, so we were used to snow. Where you are, I take it some folks don't even have shovels, snow shovels?

ROBINSON: Yes, I mean, we don't -- I'm from Pittsburgh so I am used to that up there. But down in Raleigh, you know, we get snow maybe once or twice a year and it's nothing that -- I don't have a snow shovel myself. So, usually, it's 60 degrees the next day. That stuff melts away. You don't have to shovel.

BLITZER: But you're OK now? You're inside? You're not going anywhere, right?

ROBINSON: No. My wife is actually -- coincidentally she's 8 1/2 months pregnant so I decided to stay with her. We're just sitting at home hoping the power doesn't go out.

BLITZER: Yes, let's hope the power doesn't go out. We know at least half a million people have already lost power. It's cold and it's getting dark. So, I'm really worried especially as I've been telling everyone about the elderly who could be stuck. Hopefully, there will be emergency crews to rescue these people and bring them somewhere where the power -- if we get word that they have, in fact, lost power.

Matt Robinson, thanks for sharing the video with us. Good luck to you.

ROBINSON: Thanks a lot.

BLITZER: Let's go back to our severe weather expert. Our meteorologist Chad Myers, he's joining us from the CNN weather center.

Chad, what are the conditions like right now? What do we need to know?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's going to start snowing in D.C. rather quickly. That burst of snow that Raleigh had around 1:00 or 2:00, that will be moving up to D.C.

Right now, it's getting into Richmond, Virginia. So, look out the window, if you're (INAUDIBLE) County, you'll see the snow coming down, all the way back, all the way to the beach in Hampton Roads as well. It's icing still down to the South.

I think we lose focus on maybe ice and snow and how much and how much it affects people, but this is a large swath of a foot of snow or more right along I-95 and westward. East of I-95, you're going to get a whole lot less.

Here's the number that we've been throwing around all day, Wolf. I'm with you on this, concerned about the elderly, about the pets, about the young as well, 480,000 customers without power. There are 2.58 people on average in every house. So, you multiply that number by 2.58, you've got 1.2 million people without power.

Not the customer because there's only one person on the bill, on the power bill, but there's 2.58 people behind that power bill as well. So we're talking 1.2 million people tonight that will be sleeping in the cold -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And that could go on for a while. If you lose power, there may not be enough crews to restore power within a day or two. This could last for a while.

MYERS: Sure. You know, we know there are some places in town here in Atlanta and just South where the roads aren't even safe enough for the crews to get there yet and those crews are trying to put power lines up where they can get to the downed power lines, but there are some spots that are so slick and unsalted that the crews can't move around just yet.

And this storm literally isn't even half over yet. Snow doesn't bring down power lines like the ice is down here in the South. But there's still an awful lot of snow to deal with up here, you absolutely need power when you get that type of cold weather.

BLITZER: Good advice. Hey, Chad, thanks very much for all of your excellent, excellent work.

MYERS: You're welcome.

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

Remember, you can follow us what's going on behind the scenes here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Just tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.