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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Assessing the Damage in Jackson, Tennessee, Pierce City, Missouri

Aired May 6, 2003 - 10:07   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now we want to get back to our other developing story and that is the intense weather that has hit a huge part of the middle part of the United States.
Let's go back to Leon in Jackson, Tennessee -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, thanks, Daryn, because while you were talking to Jeanne, we were able to go ahead and grab the mayor of Jackson, Tennessee, Charles Farmer, who has, as you can imagine, been a very busy man today.

Mayor Farmer, you just left a meeting with the FEMA officials, who are here to do their assessments. What have you all talked about?

MAYOR CHARLES FARMER, JACKSON, TENNESSEE: Well, we meet at least twice a day to try to determine if we have found all of the victims, if we have found all of the damage. And there are assessment teams from different agencies who will be working almost 24 hours around the clock to determine where all of the damage was, the cost of the damage, the cost of repairing the damage, also to check on the state of the utilities, our power, and whether the shelter is fully stocked and all of the things of that nature.

HARRIS: Well, first, you tell me that you have 300 people right now in the shelter here, the basketball arena. How about the victims? Do you think you have found them all? Do you have final numbers on all of that?

FARMER: Our latest numbers are nine confirmed, and we do believe that the total, when we find about the missing people, that the final toll will be 11.

HARRIS: How many missing at this point?

FARMER: Two missing.

HARRIS: Just two missing. That's actually not as bad as it could be when you consider the fact that these storms were awfully powerful and awfully massive and they covered a large area.

FARMER: Well, that's true. And you don't ever know for sure that you are looking for all of the missing people, and that would be particularly true when you have so much power off and so much of a situation where people can't get through to their relatives or to 911 or to the hospital. But we think that that will be close to the total. HARRIS: All right, let me ask you about this, because you and I talked on the air yesterday, not long after these tornadoes struck here. And I don't know if you've had a chance to get out and see much more of the area than just the downtown area. Now that you have had a chance to get out and see it, is it as bad as you thought, worse, or what?

FARMER: You know, it's always worse even than you imagine, even than the wonderful pictures on TV tell us. And when you walk around and you see the people who own the buildings, who own the homes, and who are relatives of the victims, then you get a much better sense of how bad it is. So, it is worse than we thought, and I think that's probably always the case.

HARRIS: Well, Mayor Farmer, we'll let you go. We understand you've got a lot of work to do. And we look forward to getting some more information from you later on this morning when you meet with the governor and begin your tour of the area.

FARMER: Thank you very much.

HARRIS: All right, Mayor Charles Farmer here of Jackson, Tennessee.

And one small note. This man did not plan on doing this sort of work today, because today is Election Day, or was supposed to be Election Day at least in Madison County and in Jackson, the city. And that has been postponed now for another couple of weeks, and that's if that it will happen at that point. There's lots of work to be done between now and then.

But one area in the country that has to have some good idea of what the folks in Jackson are going through are the people in Pierce City, Missouri. Tornadoes struck that area and devastated it as well.

Our David Mattingly is there, and let's check in with him now and get the very latest -- David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Leon.

This is Main Street in Pierce City, and it is ground zero from where this storm hit. And it's almost as if the tornado came through this town on Sunday and went right up this street. This is where you find the heaviest damage. It's also today where you find the heaviest equipment, everyone out trying to clear away some of the debris. Some of these buildings, some of these old, cherished buildings here will have to be torn down, because they are so badly damaged that they are posing a risk to public safety right now.

And today, the order of the day is salvage, people going in to get whatever they possibly can out of their businesses.

And the man who is in charge of making sure they are safe is Glenn Dittmar, field operations chief, normally with hazardous materials. But today you are assisting in the salvage operation. GLENN DITTMAR, FIELD OPERATIONS CHIEF: That's correct. We were sent down here basically to do what we call heavy rescue. We've come down here, we knew we had building collapse, possibly entrapment. So, we were dispatched down here to assist with that. As we're here today, we are overseeing the safe operation of the recovery or salvage of personal belongings or materials that the local residents can retrieve.

MATTINGLY: A short time ago, you were instructing all of the rescue personnel on how to act and what to do when they got into these buildings. What are you most worried about?

DITTMAR: Well, of course, building collapse, the safety of not only the locals that are going in to make salvage of their personal belongings, but the safety of our people that are working with them. We've got possible hazards of falling debris from above. The buildings are very precarious in that they can collapse at any time. We have engineers working with those teams as they go in to ensure their safety. And if they determine that it becomes unsafe for any reason, then they will instruct them to pull out.

MATTINGLY: Were you surprised by the amount of damage in this town?

DITTMAR: Yes, I was. I'm always surprised. I've seen tornado damage, you know, in previous incidents, but it always surprises me the magnitude and the force that is exhibited here with the destruction.

MATTINGLY: Based on what you've heard in the meetings that you've been in, how many of these buildings are going to disappear?

DITTMAR: I would say most all of the buildings on these two streets -- Main and Commercial Street -- are beyond salvage. The Armory Building behind us here, of course, is a building that's a stone structure, it was built in 1940, and it's one that I'm sure the locals will hate to see go, but it's just destroyed.

MATTINGLY: And the locals will hate to see all of these buildings go. Everyone cherishes their past here, and that link to that past looks like it is going to be going as a victim of this storm.

Leon -- back to you.

HARRIS: All right, thanks, David.

And as I said going to you, the people there know exactly what the people here are going though. The same issue here. Historic buildings here have been devastated. And as a matter of fact, later on this morning, we're going to be talking with the pastor of one church here, an historic building here and one that is priceless to this community that is really going to have a tough time ahead of them, and they'll have a tough decision to make about whether they can even try to restore that building. So, we'll have more coming to you from Jackson, Tennessee in just a bit. But right now, let's get back to Daryn Kagan standing by in Atlanta -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And, Leon, just to put kind of a face or perhaps a food on the town, I understand where you are, this is the home of Pringles potato chips, the only place that Pringles are made.

HARRIS: Yes, we heard that last night. And that factory where they make them, as I understand it, really sustained some heavy damage, and there was a big question last night that came up about whether or not they'll actually be able to supply the country and if they have enough in stock at this particular point. Maybe we'll get a chance to get out there.

But I've got to tell you, just getting around down here has been a bit of a hassle. There are so many trees that are down everywhere. The mayor here was just telling me a moment ago that one of the worst things about this is that this town is never going to look the same, because the trees have all pretty much been just wiped out or devastated. They're laying on the roads.

It's just tough to get around. So, we'll try to see if we can get a chance to get out there and talk to somebody about that, and let you know about what your chip situation is going to be -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Right, and not to put potato chips on par with lives, but it is representative of the economy and the tough task they'll have in keeping jobs...

HARRIS: Yes.

KAGAN: ... and pulling that town together. Leon, we're going to check back with you for a lot more.

HARRIS: No question.

KAGAN: ... throughout the morning.

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