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News Brief: Alabama Tornado, Disaster Aid Inequities, Canada Scandal

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rescue crews in Alabama are searching for survivors - this after the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 2013.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. So as of this morning, 23 people are confirmed dead and at least three of them were young children. Winds were topping 170 miles an hour as this tornado tore through rural Lee County near the Georgia state line on Sunday. The destruction area in some places was a mile wide.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW)

GREENE: Now, yesterday, really the only sound was of chainsaws as residents and volunteers were cutting through jumbled piles of wood.

MARTIN: NPR's Southern bureau chief, Russell Lewis, is in the area and went out to see the devastation yesterday. Good morning, Russell.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What did you see?

LEWIS: Well, it was pretty bleak, you know. I mean, you see a lot of roofs that have been, you know, basically ripped clean off, power poles cracked in half. You saw cars that were tossed about like children's toys and shards of yellow insulation just hanging from the shattered pine trees like tinsel on a Christmas tree. I met up with Jenifer Vernon (ph) and, you know, you could see that the shock still had not fully set in for her. She was basically standing in what was left of her neighborhood in Beauregard, Ala. Her house was just gone.

JENIFER VERNON: We've got a few things out, but for the most part, it's all either damaged or wet or not really salvageable.

LEWIS: You know, the tornado in Alabama stayed on the ground for 25 miles, and when it crossed into the border into Georgia, it was on the ground for at least another 15 miles.

MARTIN: Wow. And I understand the tornado came on really quickly, right? I mean, how much advance warning did residents actually get?

LEWIS: About a half an hour or thereabouts. You know, meteorologists really had warned about the possibility of severe weather in this area really a day in advance. And on the morning of the storm, they began to issue more dire forecasts. I spoke with Chris Darden with the National Weather Service in Birmingham, and, you know, he said that tornadoes this powerful are almost certain to always be deadly.

CHRIS DARDEN: You know, 170-mile-an-hour centrifuge throwing bricks, debris, two-by-eights - they're all spears. They're all, you know, killing machines.

MARTIN: And I know that a lot of people in this area live in trailers and mobile homes, which I imagine are completely vulnerable to something like this.

LEWIS: Yeah. They always are, especially with a storm this violent, this powerful. I spoke with Phil Chaney. He teaches geography at Auburn University, and he's studied this problem, and he says that many people, you know, have to have a tornado plan, but that's, you know, not good enough actually.

PHIL CHANEY: They need to actually go through the steps to see how long it takes so they understand how much time is going to be required to get to their safe place so that they have that on their mind when they get the warnings and they know what they're going to do at that point.

MARTIN: So, Russell, families are grieving today over the loved ones they've lost. People are trying to figure out what is left of their lives that have been destroyed, their homes. But this is a season, right? There are - tornadoes happen in clusters around the year, and it's not over.

LEWIS: No, it's not. In fact, tornadoes can strike at any month of the year, but the worst part of the time in Alabama actually is next month. April is a particularly dangerous month for tornadoes, so there's a lot out there to still be worried about.

MARTIN: NPR's Russell Lewis for us. Thank you so much.

LEWIS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So as happens after a natural disaster, a lot of people in Alabama are going to be turning to the federal government for help.

GREENE: Yeah. And this process is already starting. Alabama's governor, Kay Ivey, held a news conference yesterday. She said she had already spoken to President Trump about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

KAY IVEY: He asked what he could do, and I say, well, Mr. President, we're working with FEMA to craft a request for expedited disaster recovery declaration and we'd sure appreciate you support.

GREENE: Now, a new NPR investigation is revealing inequities in the way FEMA and other federal agencies disperse aid after a disaster. The investigation finds that wealthier people and whites often receive more than minorities and those with less wealth.

MARTIN: NPR's Robert Benincasa and Rebecca Hersher led the investigation looking at a number of disaster aid programs, and Rebecca's in the studio this morning. Hi, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: So your reporting finds that federal aid doesn't always go to those who actually need it most, right? Explain that, if you can.

HERSHER: So here's how it happens. The federal government spends a lot of money every year rebuilding and also on preventing future damage. So that's things like giving out money for a down payment on a new apartment, let's say, or helping you buy a new car or even buying out properties that have flooded repeatedly so no one else will live there. So you might assume that that money would go to the people with the most need...

MARTIN: Yes.

HERSHER: ...But, actually, the aid is often going to Americans with other safety nets.

MARTIN: OK. So can you give us an example of how this happens or when?

HERSHER: Yeah. So take low-interest loans. The federal government gives low-interest loans to help families who have, like, lost their belongings in a fire or a flood. But you have to have a certain credit score to qualify. And that's to protect the taxpayer because if you don't pay the money back, we all do.

MARTIN: Right.

HERSHER: So - but the problem is people who have more money often are able to maintain a higher credit score.

MARTIN: Right, exactly.

HERSHER: Or let's take disaster buyouts. The federal government will sometimes buy properties with federal and local money after a disaster, like floods. The land that the properties were on gets turned into permanent green space so in the future, no other homes or businesses or potential lives are lost there in a future disaster.

MARTIN: Right. But there's a rub there - right? - because if, let's say, you don't own your home, if you rent your home, then the government can't buy it from you.

HERSHER: Exactly. And here's the other thing. Even among homeowners, white people are more likely to get a buyout. So NPR's Robert Benincasa - he's my reporting partner on this project - he got a list of properties that the federal government has bought. There are 40,000 of them. And the federal government really didn't want us to see this. Robert filed a Freedom of Information Act request for them; FEMA denied it; NPR sued; we won. And when we got it, Robert linked the zip codes associated with those addresses to census data on demographics. And what we found was that, nationally, sales of flood-damaged homes happened most often in places where the population was more than 85 percent white. Now, for context, the whole country is about 62 percent white.

MARTIN: Has the government - has the federal government weighed in? Have they responded to this?

HERSHER: They have. So we interviewed David Maurstad. He oversees FEMA's buyout program. And he said that the program is working if it makes a community less risky, if it saves property and if it potentially saves lives. It doesn't - it's not designed to consider demographics. And he points out correctly that the federal government doesn't actually choose which properties get offered buyouts. That's local governments.

MARTIN: Right, what local communities do. But still, I mean, based on what you've just explained, the system does end up picking winners and losers.

HERSHER: Absolutely. And, often, it's along racial lines. So I talked to two researchers who looked at the whole U.S. at the county level, and they found that, on average, black people tend to lose wealth and white people tend to gain wealth after disasters. And that's even more intense when you look at renters versus homeowners.

MARTIN: Interesting. NPR's Rebecca Hersher us this morning on this investigation. The results are out today. Becky, thanks. We appreciate it.

HERSHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is in some serious political trouble right now.

GREENE: Yeah. Two of his Cabinet members have resigned, and this came after Canada's attorney general stepped down last month, and she is now accusing Trudeau of meddling in a criminal prosecution. Even many of Trudeau's supporters are now saying his brand as a popular progressive leader is really taking a beating.

MARTIN: North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann is in Ottawa, Canada's capital, following all this. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: How did Justin Trudeau go from having this pretty stellar reputation at home and abroad to getting embroiled in something like this?

MANN: Yeah. This shifted so fast. Even people here in Ottawa are trying to wrap their arms around it. So here's how it went. Last month, the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper ran this big expose, claiming Trudeau intervened in a high-level criminal probe involving a Canadian company called SNC-Lavalin. It's been accused of bribery and corruption. According to their story, Trudeau secretly pressured Canada's then-attorney general, a woman named Jody Wilson-Raybould, trying to convince her to go easy on this company. So last week, Wilson-Raybould herself went public, and she told Parliament the newspaper account was true. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD: I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada.

MANN: And she went on to point the finger right at Trudeau, saying he was the guy directing this secret pressure as a way to shore up his party's political support.

MARTIN: And now a second member of Trudeau's Cabinet has resigned.

MANN: Yeah, that's right. Canada's treasury board president, a woman named Jane Philpott, wrote a public - scathing public letter arguing that Trudeau had broken what she called a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law. I should say that Andrew Scheer, head of Canada's opposition Conservative Party, he's no fan of Trudeau. He's now called for the prime minister to resign, and he's calling for a probe by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

MARTIN: But what's the motive, Brian? I mean, why - according to the allegations, does Trudeau have some kind of relationship with this company?

MANN: This is a big company in Montreal, which is Prime Minister Trudeau's base of political support. And with elections coming, the argument seems to have been that this - by going fiercely against this company, it would have cost jobs and would have cost his Liberal Party votes and an important part of the province of Quebec.

MARTIN: Wow, interesting. So what is Justin Trudeau saying right now?

MANN: So he argues that this was an important and legitimate act for him to take to advocate on behalf of this Canadian company and all of the jobs that it provides. He says he did it in ways that were proper. Here he is speaking with reporters yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: We will do that, however, in a way that respects our institutions, respects the independence of our judiciary. Canadians expect us to do those two things at the same time, and that's what we will always do.

MARTIN: I mean, you reference the fact that there is an election coming up. I mean, how big a hit is he taking right now? Can he overcome this?

MANN: Yeah. I'm hearing from all sides that Trudeau's brand is seriously damaged. The super influential Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's ran an article about the scandal this week titled "Justin Trudeau, Imposter." So this is a tough time for him, very dangerous for a guy who seemed bulletproof just a few weeks ago.

MARTIN: Brian Mann with North County Public Radio joining us from Ottawa. Brian, thanks. We appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "OCCASIONAL MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.