Morning news brief
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The death toll from Maui's wildfires is now at 96 people and rising.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
That's one of the numbers that gives a sense of the scale of this disaster. And here's another - 2,700 homes and buildings were destroyed. The community of Lahaina was at the center of the destruction, and access to the burned area has been limited until now. NPR's team in Maui got a look at the damage for the first time.
FADEL: And NPR's Lauren Sommer is there now. Good morning, Lauren.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: So we just recounted the death toll, the physical damage from these wildfires, the country's deadliest in the last century. But you're there. Describe for me what that looks like, feels like.
SOMMER: Yeah. One of the first things that hits you is just the smell. I mean, walking around, there's a charred smell that kind of burns your nose. And it's fair to say that most of Lahaina itself is razed to the ground. I mean, producer Jonaki Mehta and I drove just above Front Street, which is the heart of the downtown, and the buildings are gone. We saw burned-out cars, downed power lines. It's clear that this fire burned extremely fast and hot. It was fueled by those extreme winds. And the hills around town that didn't burn are still covered in dry grass, you know, about knee high. So it's clear there was a lot of flammable material.
FADEL: So for those people who did survive, so much is lost. How are they holding up? Is there power, water?
SOMMER: Right. There's a number of centers around where residents are gathering to get supplies. We visited one where residents can get a hot meal. You know, there were stacks of bulk goods - bottled water, diapers, bags of dog food. We talked to folks who said the supply has gotten better in the last few days, in part because there's been a network of volunteers, you know, caravanning supplies up here. But there are still neighborhoods without power or drinkable water.
FADEL: At this point, are people able to go back and assess the damage on their homes, their property?
SOMMER: Yeah. We met one resident who lost his home, Chris Arnold. He and his family, including five puppies, escaped the fire with just minutes to spare. You know, he said there were embers raining down on them as they left. Their neighborhood is still barricaded, but one of his kids returned to look through the remains of their house. He actually showed us a picture on his phone of what they found. It was an urn with the ashes of his oldest son who passed away and a piece of pottery that he made.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Yeah, I meant everything in the world, and to his mom especially, that being her favorite piece and the urns - the ashes, which we thought were all gone.
FADEL: Oh, my gosh. Being able to recover that for themselves out of the ashes of this fire. This is just the start of what will be a long recovery for so many people. What do people need as they shift from trying to survive to trying to move forward?
SOMMER: I think a big question is just how fast this community can rebuild - right? - and come back together. Arnold actually works in the insurance industry, and he's concerned that people won't know what they're entitled to from insurance companies.
ARNOLD: With the amount of time that it's going to take to rebuild this town and the planning, there's going to be a couple years - most people's insurance policies aren't going to cover additional living expenses for a couple years. So we need a lot of help.
SOMMER: You know, we were actually talking to Arnold on the road above town. The sun was setting. It was just this bright orange sky over the gray rubble below us. And when it got dark, it was black because there were no lights from the buildings below anymore.
ARNOLD: That's - I've never seen this before.
SOMMER: You know, but Arnold did spot a few lights below. He called it a few sparkles of light. And, you know, I think that glimpse is what's keeping people going.
FADEL: That's NPR's Lauren Sommer in Lahaina. Lauren, thank you. I'm sure we'll be hearing from you more in the days ahead.
SOMMER: Yeah, thanks so much.
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FADEL: Today, a grand jury meets to consider a case of election interference in Georgia.
INSKEEP: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is said to be considering charges against more than a dozen people, one of whom is Donald Trump, who tried to stay in office after his election defeat in 2020. Some of his most blatant efforts centered on Georgia, where Trump urged officials to, quote, "find" enough extra votes for him to win the state by exactly one vote. If the grand jury indicts him, it would be the fourth criminal case against the ex-president.
FADEL: Joining us now is Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler, who has been following the grand jury process. Good morning.
STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: So, Stephen, what do we know about the likely timing of a grand jury decision in Georgia?
FOWLER: Well, people have been anticipating this decision for a while. This is the end of a two-week period the district attorney flagged as times where staff would work remotely, judges wouldn't schedule trials, and the courthouse is under extra security, even removing chairs in some public waiting areas, along with barricades, street closures and a crush of TV cameras camped outside waiting for action.
FADEL: So how do we know it's in the next 48 hours?
FOWLER: Well, there are two separate grand juries that meet - one on Mondays and Tuesdays, one on Thursdays and Fridays. Some witnesses, like Georgia's former lieutenant governor Geoff Duncan, said they're testifying behind closed doors on Tuesday, meaning prosecutors should start presenting their case today. Plus, Willis has presented complicated racketeering cases like this before, and it's taken about two days to get through because of the sheer number of people and alleged crimes that are included.
FADEL: So when you say racketeering, for me, that evokes images of the Mafia and other large criminal enterprises. How would this apply to the failed effort to overturn Georgia's elections?
FOWLER: Good question. Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act is similar to the federal act that was designed to go after organized crime. There's a narrow list of these things called predicate acts that show a pattern of racketeering activity - that's things like theft, homicide and kidnapping - but also actions like witness intimidation, false statements and forgery that can lead to a RICO violation that could apply here. And Georgia law is more expansive than federal law, meaning attempting asking or intimidating someone to do one of those activities can also get you charged.
So instead of multiple charges against multiple people and multiple trials independently, RICO allows the DA to paint this broad narrative and show how things are connected and create this criminal enterprise narrative, in this case, that hinges around Donald Trump pressuring officials to fraudulently subvert election results.
FADEL: So remind us, what are some of the plot points in the aftermath of 2020 that prosecutors could argue broke the law?
FOWLER: Well, there are a few main buckets based on public court documents and the work of a previous special investigative jury, Leila. We've got hearings where Trump allies falsely told lawmakers they could pick their own presidential electors - a plan that saw 16 Republicans falsely claim to be the state's official electors - the effort to unlawfully copy election data from a rural Georgia county and a pressure campaign against sitting officials to change the outcome, including the infamous call between Trump and Georgia's Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, where the then-president said this.
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DONALD TRUMP: So, look, all I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state.
FOWLER: There are a lot of things that happened in the months after 2020, and we should know more later this week.
FADEL: Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler. Thank you, Stephen.
FOWLER: Thank you.
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FADEL: A court hearing that begins today could help determine which party controls Congress after next year's election.
INSKEEP: Federal judges are reviewing whether Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature diluted the power of Black voters with a new congressional map. From a state legislature that is persistent, this case follows Alabama's failed effort to persuade the Supreme Court to further weaken the landmark Voting Rights Act.
FADEL: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering this story and joins us now. Good morning.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: So remind us what Alabama's congressional map has to do with the voting rights of Black people.
WANG: Well, the map Alabama used for last year's midterm elections - a panel of three federal judges ruled that map needs to be replaced to get in line with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The judges said Alabama needs to increase the number of voting districts where Black voters have a realistic opportunity to elect their preferred U.S. House candidate. Instead of one, there should be two of those opportunity districts, the judges said. And this week's hearing is focusing on the new map passed by the Republican-controlled legislature just last month. It has one district where Black Alabamians who are old enough to vote make up just over 50% of eligible voters and another district that's about 40% Black.
FADEL: OK, so one district that's just over 50% Black, another that's about 40%. How is the court likely to view that?
WANG: Likely not well because the ruling by the three-judge panel, which, I should note, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, says because voting in Alabama is so racially polarized, if you want to have two opportunity districts for Black voters, they will need to be two districts where Black eligible voters make up the majority or something quite close to it. And about 40% is not close enough based on what the court has found earlier in this case.
FADEL: So does that earlier ruling then give us a preview to how the court might rule this time?
WANG: Yes, very likely so. You know, I've been following court filings before the hearing, and they show this three-judge panel is probably going to strike down this latest map. And these judges will likely assign experts appointed by the court to draw a new map instead. And you know what's unusual is that Alabama has said it's not planning to bring any evidence or try to make any arguments that the legislature's map has two districts that are in line with the court's order. You know, it's - instead, it's been signaling that it's planning to appeal this case and try to get it back in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
FADEL: OK, but hasn't the Supreme Court already ruled on this case?
WANG: It has. And it basically said the lower court's ruling is right. But Alabama Republicans seem to think their new map can maybe flip at least one justice's vote to get a different ruling from the Supreme Court. But, you know, I've been talking to voting rights experts, and they think this is really unlikely to happen. You know, I talked to Peyton McCrary, a former historian in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division who now teaches at the George Washington University. And the way McCrary sees it, what Alabama is doing here is continuing a long history of the state just looking for every possible way not to follow a federal court's order when it comes to the voting rights of people of color.
PEYTON MCCRARY: Alabama has been wasting people's time for decades trying to do things that are unlikely to prevail, and its doing so yet again.
FADEL: OK. So whatever this new voting map in Alabama ends up looking like, it will have a big impact on the next Congress, right?
WANG: Yeah. You know, we're talking about majority-Black districts that are likely to vote for Democratic candidates. So Alabama could end up with two Democrats in the U.S. House, and there could be more Democratic pickups in House races in Louisiana and Georgia, depending on how similar redistricting lawsuits in those states pan out.
FADEL: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, thank you.
WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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