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News Brief: Democratic Convention, California Fires, Flint Water Crisis


Well, Democrats have tried to keep some things normal in their virtual convention this week.


The schedule at least follows tradition. The event is four nights. The vice presidential choice gets the third night - last night, so that was the moment for Senator Kamala Harris.


KAMALA HARRIS: That I am here tonight is a testament to the dedication of generations before me, women and men who believed so fiercely in the promise of equality, liberty and justice for all.

INSKEEP: Much of the evening focused on the power of women in politics. The speakers called for progress against sexual assault and domestic violence and for affordable child care. Hillary Clinton spoke, as did Senator Elizabeth Warren and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

GREENE: And we are speaking this morning with NPR's Scott Detrow, who has been watching all of this play out. Good morning, Scott.


GREENE: So what stood out to you in the speech from Kamala Harris?

DETROW: Well, this served as Kamala Harris' introduction to many voters. So at first, she told her story, how she learned about politics and protest from her two immigrant parents. In the face of racist and false claims that she is not eligible to serve as president, I did notice she made a point to not only say she was born in Oakland but to specifically name the hospital she was born in. And then like all vice presidential candidates, she shifted to make the case against their opponent, criticizing the Trump administration for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic but also its handling of other broader problems like racism.


HARRIS: This virus, it has no eyes. And yet, it knows exactly how we see each other and how we treat each other. And let's be clear - there is no vaccine for racism. We have got to do the work.

DETROW: And it was hard not to notice the awkwardness of such a big moment happening in an almost empty room. We've all had weddings and retirements and other events on Zoom. Now we've seen a national nomination accepted in the same kind of format.

GREENE: It's amazing - continues to amaze how life is different.

Well, let me ask - I mean, Steve mentioned there was a focus on the issues, he said, and also, you know, powerful women in politics. What other messages emerged to you last night?

DETROW: Another big one was the importance of voting. Throughout the night, every speaker from the first seconds with an early appearance from Harris through former President Barack Obama, urging Democrats to not take voting for granted and to expect hurdles. Obama has long felt that a lot of Democrats took it for granted in 2016 and in midterm years. But there's a new urgency to his message as President Trump repeatedly tries to question the validity of the upcoming election and talks openly about trying to undermine the post office.


BARACK OBAMA: They know they can't win you over with their policies, so they're hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote and to convince you that your vote does not matter. That is how they win.

DETROW: Obama also gave some stinging criticism to President Trump, saying he's not able to grow into the job. And the president responded with a bunch of angry tweets that were in all caps.

GREENE: All right - so we go into the final night. We're going to hear from Joe Biden this evening. What is left, would you say, in terms of making the case if you're the Democratic Party?

DETROW: This is the rare big moment that Joe Biden has at the center stage. I'm curious to hear how he tells his story, how much he talks about the agenda he wants to see as president. And also, given the fact that the Trump campaign has attacked Biden all year questioning his performance, his age - if Biden takes this rare moment in the spotlight and gives a good or even energetic performance, that could go a long way to neutralizing those attacks.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Detrow. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing.

GREENE: And we should say NPR's coverage of the Democratic National Convention continues tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern time. You can visit or ask your smart speaker to play NPR or your local station by name to join us live.


GREENE: All right. Here in California, it is definitely wildfire season.

INSKEEP: Because a heat wave along with intense winds and more than 10,000 lightning strikes have caused hundreds of fires across the state, tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes. Governor Gavin Newsom says that even for a state that is used to fires, this is bad.


GAVIN NEWSOM: What has occurred over the last 72 hours has certainly stretched the resources of this state.

GREENE: California is also dealing with rolling blackouts right now from high energy use during this heat wave. There's a lot going on.

We're joined by KQED reporter Danielle Venton. She's in Sonoma County, where fires are burning at the moment. Hi, Danielle. Thanks for being here.


GREENE: So what's it feel like where you are?

VENTON: Well, I'm in a place where there are fires on three sides of us - to the north, to the south, to the east. Skies are pretty smoky outside. There's ash falling like snow. And the last few days have been far, far hotter than we're accustomed to. Many of us don't have air conditioning. And large parts of my county but also many other counties around the Bay Area are under evacuation orders.

GREENE: Well, I mean, the governor said this is stretching resources. So with this many fires and all of this going on, what - how are authorities handling it?

VENTON: Yes, this has already been a very active fire season. The state has seen almost 7,000 ignitions from the start of the year to now. And last year at the same time, it was just 4,000. Fire authorities have been really trying to keep fires small and have been relying heavily on planes and helicopters. But now, with these fires, resources are just stretched too thin. I've been listening to the fire scanner for some of the local fires, and I've heard a couple of times dispatchers just apologizing that they have no resources to send to responders in the field or that it's going to be a long wait.

Many of these fires are in remote, hard to reach areas where bulldozers can't go in and lay down control lines, so normally hand crews go in with chainsaws and hand tools. But the state's primary hand crews are inmate firefighters, and those ranks have been cut by about a third. And that's in part because of early releases due to the overcrowding in the prison system and all the outbreaks of COVID-19 that we've seen in prisons around the state.

GREENE: I mean, it's just a reminder - this is a pandemic; it is a heat wave. You have all of these fires everywhere, people without air conditioning facing blackouts. I mean, can you talk about how residents are even coping with all this?

VENTON: It's a really stressful time. Some people have been woken up by police and firefighters in the middle of the night as they go door to door telling people to evacuate. Some are heading to family and friends' houses or hotels. Some are heading to evacuation centers. Those centers are trying to put people into hotels to allow for social distancing. There are areas being told to prep for possible evacuations.

And then many others who are currently safe are looking for ways to help, offering shelters in there RVs or their trailers, offering to take in large animals. You know, the air quality is very bad, so people are being advised to stay indoors and run air purifiers and air conditioners if they can. There's a worry that the smoke could make the fight against COVID-19 even harder.

GREENE: And as we understand, no relief in sight - fire conditions are going to remain as they are right now, so that's a big concern.

Danielle Venton reports for member station KQED. Thanks so much, Danielle. Stay safe.

VENTON: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. The state of Michigan has reached a $600 million settlement agreement with victims of the Flint water crisis.

INSKEEP: It was in 2014 when the city of Flint changed its source of water and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply. It became one of the nation's worst public health disasters. Though the crisis may have dropped from the headlines, for those people affected, it has never ended. And now victims do see some compensation.

GREENE: Kayla Ruble is a freelance investigative reporter based in Detroit. She has been reporting this story for The Washington Post and joins us. Good morning.

KAYLA RUBLE: Good morning.

GREENE: So can you tell us what you know about this settlement agreement? I know you've been doing some of the early reporting on it.

RUBLE: Yeah. So I mean, just a little bit of background - what you're looking at with this settlement here is sort of under this umbrella, you have a collection of a number of individual lawsuits that have been filed by multiple lawyers representing thousands of plaintiffs, you know, everything from kids to homeowners, business owners, Legionnaire's victims. And even though they're not all under a class action lawsuit, they've been sort of streamlined under one judge in one negotiation process that kind of got us to this settlement moment that we learned about last night.

And after reviewing the settlement that I've been able to obtain and look at, what you see is the breakdown of the monetary amount in terms of which plaintiffs. That's really, like, the big takeaway is that kids will be getting a bulk of the settlement. So they'll get - 80% of the 600 million will go to kids that were under the age of 18 during the Flint water crisis. And then 65% of that amount will go to kids who were under the age of 6. So largely, you know, the demographic that was the most severely impacted by the lead contamination in the water.

GREENE: And there were all those concerns about just the long-term impacts on kids from this - stuff they might be facing...

RUBLE: Exactly.

GREENE: ...For many years to come. I mean, for people who haven't been following this - it's been six years now - can you just sort of talk broadly about how we've arrived at this moment?

RUBLE: Well, even just speaking to the settlement, I mean, a bulk of these were filed in, you know, 2015 and 2016 and then, you know, sort of consolidated under this judge in 2017. And then you've had, you know, 18 months of pretty intense negotiations with the lawyers and developments. You know, we all see headlines occasionally of different developments here. But behind the scenes, they've been meeting weekly and all of that.

And from what I understand, the talks really picked up, actually, as the pandemic hit and sort of the shutdown happened and life kind of slowed down. And I think the lawyers sort of had more time to sit and work out this deal, which is a pretty - you know, will probably go down as one of the largest settlements on behalf of the state of Michigan in quite some time and is a pretty unprecedented deal that I think even the lawyers are - you know, sort of weren't expecting.

GREENE: What is reaction so far? I mean, I guess I wonder in a crisis like this - is any amount of money enough?

RUBLE: Yeah. I think that's - you know, that's always going to be the underlying takeaway here, I think, is that, you know, money doesn't really fix what happened necessarily to the people in Flint. But I think for kids who are looking at long-term, lifelong impacts of this lead contamination, the money is significant. From what the lawyers are saying, it's going to make a difference in these kids' lives and these families' lives. And I think while residents are always - you know, it's hard for them to kind of overcome some of their skepticism, I think, you know, small victories do make a difference at this point.

GREENE: Kayla Ruble is an investigative reporter. You have seen her reporting on the Flint water crisis in The Washington Post.

Thank you so much.

RUBLE: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. And before we go, we do just want to highlight one other story we are closely watching today.

INSKEEP: Russia's most prominent opposition leader is on a hospital ventilator in a coma. Alexei Navalny fell ill from a suspected poisoning. That's according to his spokeswoman who said on Twitter that Navalny was on a flight to Moscow when he got sick and the plane made an emergency landing.

GREENE: Russia's state news agency reported that a doctor at the hospital said Navalny is in grave condition. And we'll be following this story on and on air on your local NPR station. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.