Morning News Brief: Hurricane Relief Operations

Sep 14, 2017
Originally published on September 14, 2017 7:39 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A big relief operation is underway in the Caribbean to try to move food and water in for the thousands of people in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That's right. U.S. and British military planes and helicopters are joining people out there in private boats, and they are all working, trying to get basic necessities into areas that were flattened by Hurricane Irma. Right now, the hospital on the island of St. Thomas is not operational. Here's how the governor of the Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp, described the impact of Irma.

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KENNETH MAPP: It devastated schools. It crushed homes and buildings. So we are concentrating right now on the personal needs of our community.

KELLY: The reality for a lot of people right now is, they just want to get out.

SAM BLACK: All the airports are flooded with people wanting to get off the island.

KELLY: That is Sam Black. He's a private pilot in the Virgin Islands, and he spoke with our colleague, NPR's Jason Beaubien.

MARTIN: And Jason is on the line now. He is in St. Croix.

So Jason, it's been days now since Hurricane Irma passed through. What is the island looking like at this point?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: You know, things are still incredibly bad, people are telling us. I'm actually on St. Croix. We've been trying to get into St. Thomas, but logistically, it's still incredibly difficult to get over there. There's only a few flights going. There're some small boats that are going back and forth. But there's a lot of debris in the water. You know, it can take you several hours to get from here over to there, so it's hard to navigate for those boats.

And on top of that, this 18-hour-a-day curfew is still in place. You have this, like, six-hour window when you can land. But I have been talking to people both on St. Thomas and St. John, and talking to officials here. I've been going back - pilots and relief officials - and they're saying that the needs are great over there.

MARTIN: But the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands says there's all kinds of aid that's coming. At the same time, though, so many people are trying to leave.

BEAUBIEN: Well, I don't know if you can hear it right now, but the rain has been pounding down on us overnight, and you have to think about that there was people there. You know, it's pounding down on the roof on - where I'm standing, but people over there, many of them lost their rooves entirely; others have them damaged. You know, you already have thousands of people who've been evacuated by boats. You know, these relief supplies are going in.

But, you know, people are simply desperate to get off. You know, some of these small planes, the military helicopters, they're flying in there. There's no control tower, no radar, just a - you know, a bare airstrip. And yet, as we're hearing from that pilot earlier, he's saying there's this steady stream of people who are still trying to get out.

MARTIN: So it just doesn't feel habitable to them. So what does this mean, in terms of getting things back to any kind of semblance of normalcy? I mean, power and water - and those are just the basics. What are officials telling you about when that might be restored?

BEAUBIEN: I mean, it really is just seeming like this is going to be a long, long haul - you know, months at least. I was talking to David Mapp, he's the brother of the governor. He's also the head of the Virgin Islands Port Authority. And he's saying it's probably going to be nine months to get the airport in St. Thomas rebuilt.

MARTIN: Wow.

BEAUBIEN: You know, that said, they have some limited commercial access. You know, the ports are also damaged. You know, and this is - remember, this is an island, and everything has to be shipped in either by boat or by plane. You know, it's going to be a long time to get this place back to some semblance of normalcy.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting there from the island of St. Croix. Thanks, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: President Trump is getting a firsthand view of how Florida is doing after Hurricane Irma. He visits the state today.

KELLY: That is correct. The president has been praising the federal response to the storm, and he is also linking the recovery to his top legislative issue, which is overhauling the tax code. On Twitter, he said, tax cuts are needed more than ever with Irma and Harvey devastation. The president's been touting his work with Republicans and Democrats on that front and others.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When we set aside our differences - and it's amazing sometimes how little our differences are - we put our country and we put the citizens of our country first.

KELLY: He said that yesterday ahead of hosting another dinner at the White House with Democratic lawmakers. So the question is, how does all of this play into views on President Trump and how he is leading now?

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Geoff Bennett covers the White House and Congress, and he is in our studios this morning.

Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: And we're going to get to this dinner that the president had with leading Democrats. But first, President Trump, going to Florida today - where's he going? What's he going to see?

BENNETT: Well, first, he's going to Fort Myers, Fla., and then from there, he's going to head to Naples, Fla. And he's going to be joined by the vice president. And it's really - they - he's going to get a briefing on the Irma relief efforts. But it's really - he wants to really just project this sense of competence, this sense of engagement around the federal government's relief efforts. Remember, he traveled twice to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and this is in keeping with that. This is...

MARTIN: So this will be the first time that he's going after Irma.

BENNETT: That's right, yeah.

MARTIN: OK. All right, so let's get to the main event, which was this dinner. Chuck and Nancy...

BENNETT: Yeah, Chinese food was on the menu, apparently, at that dinner with Chuck and Nancy, yeah.

MARTIN: Oh, really? OK, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, they went to the White House. What happened?

BENNETT: So depending on who you believe, at the end of this meeting, they agreed, in principle, to arrive at this legislative deal focused on DACA, enshrining protections for these roughly 800,000 young, undocumented, so-called DREAMers who were brought to the country illegally. And the legislative deal would be that they would arrive at protections for DACA that would include some sort of border security measures but would not necessarily have to include funding for President Trump's long-promised border wall.

MARTIN: So they're, in some ways, addressing it separately from the overall immigration issues, but not really. They're pegging it to one element of it.

BENNETT: Right, and that is in keeping with what President Trump reportedly told other members of the House in a meeting he had earlier in the day yesterday - that, you know, he wanted some funding for the wall but that they didn't - the two didn't have to be tied together. DACA and this border wall did not have to be tied together.

However, Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday tweeted after this meeting that that wasn't the case. She writes, while DACA and border security were both discussed, excluding the wall was certainly not agreed to. And I think that reflects the fact that the White House knows very well that this - there could be a revolt among the president's conservative base because while this - while, you know, polls show that most Americans do support in trying protections for young DREAMers, the conservative, nationalist base wants none of it.

KELLY: Just quick, Geoff, you said, depending on who you believe - it was just the three of them in this dinner, as far as we know.

BENNETT: There were 11 people, according to an aide who was briefed on this. Nancy Pelosi was the only woman in the room. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who disputes their characterization of the meeting, was not present.

KELLY: Got it.

MARTIN: And of course, amid all this, there's a new health care debate. Just real quick - Republicans trying to repeal and replace again, Democrats saying Obamacare didn't go far enough.

BENNETT: That's right. And Bernie Sanders has released his Medicare-for-all push. The thing these two - thing that these two bills have in common is that neither one is going to become law anytime soon.

MARTIN: Ah, good to know. NPR's Geoff Bennett, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

BENNETT: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: Going to the other side of the world now for an update on the situation in Myanmar and the plight of the minority Rohingya Muslims who live there.

KELLY: Yeah, the Rohingyas have become targets of Myanmar's military again after an insurgent Rohingya group attacked police stations there. The military has now gone into Rohingya villages, engaged in what is being described as indiscriminate shooting, burning down houses. The violence has drawn the attention of the U.N. Security Council. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called what is happening there ethnic cleansing.

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?

KELLY: And those numbers are staggering - almost 400,000 Rohingya believed now to have fled to Bangladesh just in the last few weeks.

MARTIN: All right, reporter Michael Sullivan is on the line from Bangkok.

Michael - strong words there from the U.N. about this crisis. Remind us why these people are being persecuted.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: They're a Muslim minority of about a million people in a Buddhist-majority country, and they're a minority that are denied even the most basic human rights. They're not recognized as citizens of Myanmar, and the Myanmar military has, on several occasions, tried to force many of them out.

MARTIN: The leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, famed human rights activist - but she's apparently been relatively quiet on this. Why?

SULLIVAN: She's been very quiet. And of course, that's infuriated lots of people, including some of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners and lots of governments too. But look, she's in a bind. The minority Rohingya aren't popular in Myanmar to begin with. And even if she wanted to do something to get the military to stop, she can't. It doesn't answer to her. Her office now says she'll give a televised address next week to, as their spokesman put it, speak for national reconciliation and peace, whatever that means. Meanwhile, the exodus continues.

MARTIN: So as for that statement from the U.N. secretary-general calling it ethnic cleansing, is that likely to make any kind of difference here?

SULLIVAN: It's unclear how it would make any difference. I think the Myanmar military has continued - is going to continue doing what it wants to do until it's finished - until it thinks it's finished. And I think Suu Kyi's statement just means that they're buying a little time.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, these people have been pushed over the border into Bangladesh, right? What are conditions there?

SULLIVAN: They're terrible. They were terrible to begin with. There's several hundred thousand refugees already in Bangladesh, and they just can't cope on that side. The U.N. can't cope. The Bangladesh government can't cope. A lot of these people are sleeping rough. They have no shelter. They have no tents. They have no water. They don't have much food either. It's getting desperate.

MARTIN: Reporter Michael Sullivan covering the Rohingya crisis - he is based in Bangkok. Michael, thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SEVEN MILE JOURNEY'S "PASSENGER'S LOG, THE UNITY FRACTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.