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News brief: Hurricane Ian, Nord Stream pipeline leaks, Biden's plan to end hunger

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly say the rupture of the Nord Stream pipelines released hundreds of millions of metric tons of methane gas. In fact, experts' current estimate is that hundreds of thousands of metric tons were released.]

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cuba is without electricity this morning after Hurricane Ian knocked out the power grid there.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The hurricane is now a Category 4, and it's on track to hit Florida's Gulf Coast today with winds of 140 miles per hour. The National Hurricane Center is predicting life-threatening storm surge. Communities like Sanibel, Fort Myers and Sarasota may see a storm surge of 8 to 12 feet. And 2 1/2 million people are under evacuation orders in several Florida counties.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen is with us now from St. Petersburg, where he's tracking the storm. Hey, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So these are sobering warnings, and it's now a Category 4. Have people in the most vulnerable areas been evacuated at this point?

ALLEN: It appears largely so at this point. A steady stream of traffic was heading north all day yesterday. Emergency managers ordered evacuations in these low-lying coastal areas. And people don't have to go far, just a few miles inland, although I think many people just want to get away as far as they can.

MARTIN: Right.

ALLEN: When I drove around neighborhoods in St. Petersburg in the evacuation zone late yesterday, I really couldn't find very many people around at all. There were a few businesses still open, though. At one, 4th Street Pizza owner Phil Singleton was feeling upbeat because Ian's track has shifted east, likely sparing Tampa Bay from a direct hit. I asked him if he feels like his home is safe.

PHIL SINGLETON: Well, I am on the water, and I did not at all for a long time. But then today, as it continues to track east, if that does hold course, then we should be OK. But if it doesn't and comes north and hits us, then I'm going to be flooded. There's nothing I could have done.

ALLEN: A 4- to 6-foot storm surge is still expected here, and combined with heavy rain up to 2 feet in some places, flooding is still expected.

MARTIN: It's so hard for people because the track of the storm could change, you know, and there's nothing they can do about it. What are the potential effects of a storm this large in this area?

ALLEN: Well, it's so large it's going to have impacts on, really, most of the state, almost all of it. The National Hurricane Center says it's - Ian has strengthened as it's approached the coast. High winds are going to cause major damage as it comes ashore, toppling trees, knocking out power and likely cellphone service in some areas. And officials are warning if there's a lot of damage from flooding and downed trees, restoring power may take some time. Of course, the bigger concern is storm surge 'cause, historically, that's what causes the largest loss of life in a hurricane.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALLEN: And it can lead to billions of dollars in flood claims. Meteorologists are warning that there's going to be this heavy rain, and that will pose a risk to communities that are far from the coast that might get extensive flooding. In Orlando, Disney and Universal are shutting their theme parks today and tomorrow because of concerns about the storm.

MARTIN: What's the state government's response to this been thus far?

ALLEN: Well, Governor Ron DeSantis has been holding several briefings each day, updating people on the storm and the risks they face and how the state's responding. It's a much different tone than we've seen over the last year when he's kept up this steady drumbeat of criticism of the Biden administration. DeSantis, of course, is the likely Republican presidential candidate. DeSantis said FEMA and the Biden administration quickly approved his request for disaster declaration, and he was appreciative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: So we feel like we have a good relationship with FEMA. You know, I'm happy to brief the president if he's interested in hearing what we're doing in Florida. You know, my view on all this is, like, you know, you got people's lives at stake. You got their property at stake. And we don't have time for pettiness. We got to work together.

ALLEN: The White House said the two men spoke last night and committed to continued close cooperation. So they're working together, and we're getting ready for the storm.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen in St. Petersburg. Thanks, Greg. Take care.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Europe is investigating what caused two key natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea to rupture.

FADEL: Yeah, officials say the damage sustained by the pipelines running from Russia to Germany on Monday night appeared to be a deliberate attack, and some are accusing Russia of sabotage.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz is with us this morning. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey.

MARTIN: So the damaged pipelines that we're talking about - this is the Nord Stream 1 and the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipelines - walk us through what happened to them.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. On Monday night, scientists detected two underwater explosions large enough to register on the Richter scale near the Danish island of Bornholm. Soon after that, operators of both the Nord Stream pipelines reported drops in pressure, and footage released by the Danish military showed a half-mile circle of white churning sea - essentially, hundreds of millions of metric tons of methane gas, a harmful greenhouse gas, bubbling up to the surface. Now, neither of these pipelines are active. Russia cut flows in Nord Stream 1 in August, and Nord Stream 2 never opened. But both of them were still filled with natural gas when the explosions happened.

MARTIN: So that's kind of a crazy sight...

SCHMITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To see this happen and this water bubbling up like that. Explosions, pipeline explosions, are really rare, especially underwater. What do authorities think happened?

SCHMITZ: European leaders believe this was not an accident. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said this to reporters yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER METTE FREDERIKSEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Rachel, she's saying here that we can't rule out that this was an act of sabotage. This is an unusual situation where you have three leaks on two gas pipelines in the same area but with some distance between them. So she says it's hard to believe it was a coincidence.

MARTIN: So the question is now, why would anyone want to intentionally blow up these pipelines? And how would that have been accomplished?

SCHMITZ: Right. Both were key pipelines that delivered Russian gas to Western Europe. Nord Stream 1 is majority owned by Russian energy company Gazprom, and Nord Stream 2 is owned by a Swiss subsidiary of Gazprom. The U.S. criticized both pipelines, saying they made Europe, especially Germany, too dependent on Russia. Germany never opened Nord Stream 2 as a stance against Russian aggression, and Russia cut all gas in Nord Stream 1 as retaliation for EU sanctions. Russian state-owned news hinted the U.S. was behind this, but many in Europe are pointing the finger at Moscow. Poland's prime minister called this the next stage in Russia's war escalation. This leaves open the question as to why Russia would attack its own pipelines. But neither pipeline is being used, and Europe is working hard to replace the Russian gas that flowed inside these pipelines.

MARTIN: So, I mean, how would they have even done this? If these suspicions are correct and it was Russia, how would it have happened?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, the investigation just started, but the pipelines are in water that is just a couple hundred feet deep. If a submarine did this, authorities should have detected that. One military source speculates that mines may have been laid from a disguised commercial vessel and then detonated later on.

MARTIN: Wow.

SCHMITZ: What's interesting here is these explosions took place just outside the territorial waters of Denmark. So it's the kind of detail that might be expected from a state actor who wanted to be sure that it wasn't carried out on a member of NATO. Also, the owners of the pipelines, companies based in Russia and Switzerland, are not headquartered in NATO territory. So both the location of the explosions and the property damaged would not, under international treaty, demand any kind of NATO or Western military response.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz from Berlin. Thanks, Rob. We appreciate this.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: There's an image from the pandemic that President Biden talks about a lot, an image that shows just how quickly people can lose their food security.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Remember those long lines of cars stretching miles back, waiting for just a box of food to be put back in their trunk? Wasn't just poor folk. It was working-class folks, middle-class folks. A lot of pretty nice cars in those lines.

FADEL: And today, President Biden is going to talk about his plans to try to help tackle hunger. The White House is hosting a major conference on the issue, the first of its kind since 1969.

MARTIN: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo joins us now with more. Good morning, Ximena.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So this is the first big hunger conference in this country in 50 years. The last one was when President Nixon was in the White House. Why is this happening now?

BUSTILLO: Yeah, no, great question. That conference was a really big deal. It led to the creation of food stamps and child nutrition programs that are still in place today. But hunger is still a huge problem. One in 10 Americans face problems getting enough to eat, according to the Agriculture Department. And Black and Latino households face higher rates of food insecurity than white households. Additionally, the pandemic, specifically, renewed the sense of urgency to talk about food policy - the long lines at food banks, the reliance students have on school lunches and people with diet-related diseases, like diabetes, have faced more risks with COVID. It also showed the benefit of government assistance. Because of programs like stimulus checks and the child tax credit, we didn't see a huge jump in hunger levels during the pandemic.

MARTIN: So President Biden is pledging to try to end hunger in America in eight years, which is an audacious goal, I guess you could say. How is he going to do that?

BUSTILLO: He wants to deal with some of the root causes, like not having enough money for food. So, for example, he wants to revive the child tax credit and raise the minimum wage, but also, he wants to make it easier for more people to get food stamps, like people who are formerly incarcerated and college students, who right now don't qualify. The White House came out yesterday with a 40-page plan of ideas. I talked to Michael Wilson about it. He's a director of a nonprofit called Maryland Hunger Solutions.

MICHAEL WILSON: In some ways, I'm relieved at some of the priorities that they put out 'cause I think that those of us who work in the anti-hunger space know that the root causes which cause people to have issues with hunger and food insecurity really, really need to be addressed. It's not as simple as have a salad.

BUSTILLO: Now, making these ideas reality won't be easy. It will take action by Congress. And Republicans do not support expanding food stamps and school meals. So there's going to be a lot of debate as lawmakers put the farm bill together next year.

MARTIN: So it's one thing to come out with a 40-page plan and to talk about this issue, especially ahead of a midterm election, but is there anything concrete the administration can do right now?

BUSTILLO: Yeah, there are a couple of things that they want to do and that they can just do without Congress, including changes to regulations for nutrition labels. They'd like to start putting simpler labels on the front of packages instead of the complicated ones on the back. And they're also urging the private sector to act. They say they've already lined up $8 billion worth of promises, and they'll be talking about those today, too.

MARTIN: NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 28, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we mistakenly say the rupture of the Nord Stream pipelines released hundreds of millions of metric tons of methane gas. In fact, experts' current estimate is that hundreds of thousands of metric tons were released.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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