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News Brief: Mexico Earthquake, Hurricane Maria, New GOP Health Care Effort


We are closely following two natural disasters this morning. There is Hurricane Maria churning through the Caribbean and also the aftermath of a major earthquake in central Mexico.


Yeah, let's talk about that earthquake. First, here's what we know. It had a 7.1 magnitude. We know aftershocks were felt 60 miles from the epicenter, and we know more than 200 people have died. When the quake struck yesterday, sirens blared across the capital as people rushed outside. In footage shared on social media, families watch their apartments and homes crumble. Maria Messing, who's American, was in a plaza with her husband and 3-year-old daughter when the earthquake hit.

MARIA MESSING: The trees were moving. I thought maybe the trees would come on - like, fall over us. It was just a nightmare. That's the best way to describe it, like a really bad nightmare.

KELLY: And David, in one of these awful twist of fate, Maria and her family had fled to Mexico City to get away from Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

GREENE: God, that's just amazing. Well, journalist James Fredrick saw buildings in his own neighborhood collapsing when this earthquake hit, and he joins us now from Mexico City on Skype.

Hi, there, James.

JAMES FREDRICK: Hey. How are you?

GREENE: I'm good, thank you. You know, just seeing the images from afar of the rubble in the city - I mean, it's just been stunning. Can you describe what things look like where you were in your neighborhood?

FREDRICK: Yeah, it was pretty shocking to see those first images. And you know, the first very high images of this city just showed these plumes of dust or smoke rising out of the city right after it. I spoke to a friend who, when she left her building, said she was literally watching cars bounce on the street. There's this sound during an earthquake - if you've never been in one - of hearing the walls almost crack as they move a little bit.

Luckily, my building did not suffer any noticeable damage, but in my neighborhood, there were multiple buildings that collapsed. The work to dig through them and find survivors who may be inside them is ongoing. But it's very eerie. Lots - large parts of the city are still without electricity, so the city just feels very, very unsettling right now.

GREENE: Well, and just following on social media - I mean, there've been these videos of fires still burning. There were reports of ruptured gas lines. Does that mean there - I mean, there's still a lot of hazards out there.

FREDRICK: It seems that most of those hazards have been reduced now. Of course, that is the main thing. Especially near the sites where there is damage, they are insisting that people not smoke cigarettes, not light anything, not use electronics because they are still worried about that. But it seems like, for the most part, those kinds of dangers have been minimized. The thing that people are really worried about and anxious about is an aftershock. There has not been a major aftershock yet, but people are on edge about that.

GREENE: That is the scene from Mexico City. Reporter James Fredrick is there.

James, thanks a lot. We appreciate the time.

FREDRICK: Thank you.

GREENE: And let's turn now to another natural disaster, Mary Louise. It's yet another hurricane in the Caribbean.

KELLY: Yet another hurricane - this is Hurricane Maria headed toward Puerto Rico where they are already feeling high winds. And Puerto Rico, of course, is still recovering from Hurricane Irma and now facing yet another whopper storm. Kyle Malene (ph) is one of many Puerto Ricans who decided not to leave the island.

KYLE MALENE: We put the plywood dormers back up over all the windows that we just took down a week ago to hopefully protect the windows from the wind and debris.

KELLY: And David, Puerto Rico's governor had actually warned all residents to get out. He says he is asking for America's prayers.

GREENE: All right, LA Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske is on the line from San Juan.

Hi, Molly.


GREENE: So this storm is - I mean, the target is now Puerto Rico. Are you feeling this storm arrive now?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Yes, we are definitely feeling it. Within the past hour, the winds have intensified where I am near the waterfront in Old San Juan. You can hear them howling outside, banging the doors, which, luckily, are barricaded here, and they've covered a lot of the windows. I can - I'm down the hall from my room where we've lost power, but there's still generator power in the hallways. And you can see out the front window just the winds lashing and driving the rain sideways. And this is just the beginning. We haven't even really got the full brunt of the force of the hurricane yet.

GREENE: Yeah, and if that's the beginning, who knows what's going to happen in the coming hours. Some suggesting this could be the storm of this century in Puerto Rico - I mean, how much damage could happen if it's as bad as people expect?

HENNESSY-FISKE: That's right. I talked to the mayor of San Juan yesterday. He...

GREENE: Molly, you still there?

HENNESSY-FISKE: (Unintelligible) here.

GREENE: OK, your line's going out a little bit. But you were saying you talked to the mayor of San Juan.

HENNESSY-FISKE: That's right - at a shelter in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum where 500 people had gathered already. She said one of their big concerns will be trying to clear the roads and get power restored afterwards. There were already something like 70,000 people who still didn't have power after Irma, and now there are going to be many more. She said they were prepared for possibly months without power.

GREENE: Yeah, just listening to that tape from the beginning of someone putting boarding back up on their homes after taking it down a week ago - I mean, this must just feel awful for people to go through this again and again.

HENNESSY-FISKE: Yeah, there were people from Puerto Rico who were at the shelter yesterday who had been there during Irma. But also, I was on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and came here with evacuees on Sunday. Some of those evacuees had come from St. John having lost everything, came here, couldn't get out on flights.

There were also some people I talked to who were from Dominica, and they had come here, and I'm still not sure if they actually made it back to Dominica, which really got walloped by this storm before it got here.

GREENE: It just seems like there's no escape as these storms keep coming. The LA Times' Molly Hennessy-Fiske speaking to us from San Juan, bracing for the effects of this hurricane that is bearing down on Puerto Rico. Molly, thanks.



GREENE: OK, to Washington now, and Republicans on Capitol Hill are making one more attempt to follow through on their years-long campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

KELLY: Yeah, David, I think this is health care overhaul act 47. 470? I don't know. I've lost track.

GREENE: So have I.

KELLY: This latest attempt does have a name. It goes by the name Graham-Cassidy. That is for the two senators who drafted it. And Graham-Cassidy would essentially deconstruct the major programs created by Obamacare. It would take the money involved, it would hand that money over as block grants for states to run their own health care programs. Now, Democrats are not on board. Here is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.


CHUCK SCHUMER: No matter how many ways they try to dress it up, they try to hide it, it's even more dangerous and more reckless than the previous bill that was defeated.

KELLY: Now the question is, is there a path for this bill to pass? And how narrow might that path be?

GREENE: Well, don't ask me that, Mary Louise.

KELLY: (Laughter).

GREENE: I want to ask NPR's Domenico Montanaro those questions. He is on the line.

Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, guys. How are you?

GREENE: Good. So can Republicans get this one passed?

MONTANARO: Look, they've got a tight window. I mean, it's same as before, but they're trying to use this budget process known as reconciliation to - and they need 51 votes, as opposed to the 60 you would normally need to overcome a filibuster. They can only lose two, is what that means. And so far, Rand Paul has been a solid no. Susan Collins of Maine is leaning no, and that means - you look at John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska. And McCain was no last time, but he is best friends with Lindsey Graham, who's the principal author of this bill, and that could be a wild card.

Murkowski herself - you know, if Alaska's funded enough, then maybe her vote could be in play. But it's not clear at this point if they will wind up having enough votes to wind up getting it passed, but there could be some momentum for it. And, you know, honestly, it's kind of slid under the radar this time.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, a lot of other news out there - you said funded enough. So this is a place where senators could say, if you bump up the funding for my state or something, maybe I would - I'd be able to get on board with this.

MONTANARO: Right. Lindsey Graham basically said health care now is choosing between socialism and federalism, and federalism being that the states can, you know, decide how they want to run their health care systems. And, you know, this rolls back a lot of the Medicaid expansion of Obamacare. But if those states are funded with enough money, then those states could potentially continue to do similar programs to what they had before.

But that's a very open question. And if the federal government's not going to mandate how that's done, then it - there's no guarantee that they would be able to or that they would have the political will to go through with continuing something like the marketplaces.

GREENE: And Domenico, there's been this unfamiliar word that has crept its way back into Washington - bipartisanship. All this talk of President Trump, and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi - is there a different climate now? I mean, might Democrats be willing to work somehow on health care with Republicans in this climate?

MONTANARO: No way. And Chuck Schumer said yesterday, basically, there were sprouts of bipartisanship, and that if the Republicans go through with this bill, that those sprouts of bipartisanship would be dead, which would make for a really, really messy December because remember, Democrats jumped on board to help move that debt ceiling deadline to mid-December. And if they don't want to help out, then that could make for a really bad Christmas.

GREENE: NPR's Domenico Montanaro's talking about a potentially really bad Christmas. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: (Laughter) You're welcome. Why not?

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON HORNS' "FUNKAFIZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.