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News Brief: Natural Disasters Strike Mexico And Puerto Rico

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hurricane Maria, a monster storm, raged across Puerto Rico, destroying homes and causing widespread flooding.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Flooding - and on top of that, David, the entire island is now without power. A curfew's in place so first responders can more easily get to the hardest-hit areas. Tanya Ferguata (ph) lives in Puerto Rico. She and her family rode out the hurricane at her parents' home. And yesterday, when she went back to her place, she found lots and lots of damage.

TANYA FERGUATA: It was tough, but I mean, it's all material. So I know that we're lucky that we're fine - kind of had to stay optimistic, otherwise it'll be a long road up.

GREENE: ...And a lot of people trying to stay optimistic in Puerto Rico after the storm went through. NPR's Greg Allen has been covering this storm, following its path. He's in Miami.

Hey, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what is the latest? How do things look on Puerto Rico? I know power is going to be out for some time. But what is the situation, broadly?

ALLEN: Right, with the power out, it's really hard to get much information out there. Communication's been very sketchy across the entire island. It's been very nerve-wracking for people who live in the U.S. who are trying to talk to loved ones down there. Some municipalities have been largely cut off since the storm hit yesterday. Governor Ricardo Rossello issued a curfew last night, keeping everybody home. He said there's been one fatality so far, but information is really just starting to come in.

What we do know is, there's widespread flooding across the island. The emergency management director asked people today to stay home just until the flash flood warnings subside. There's flash flood warnings across the island today. We'll get more information a little bit later today as the search and rescue teams and the emergency workers fanned out and start reporting back.

GREENE: You know, Greg, I was talking to one reporter in San Juan yesterday who said there was a fishing village not far from San Juan that was just obliterated - I mean, 80 percent of the structures and homes destroyed. Do we know areas that were particularly hard-hit by the storm?

ALLEN: Right. I've heard reports of that one. I think it - Catano, which is to the - would be to the west of San Juan on the northern coast, a lot of areas there were flooded badly. The authorities opened floodgates on some reservoirs. They say that might've had something to do with it, but the storm surge was certainly a factor as well.

In Rio Piedras, south of San Juan, there was these large wind gusts recorded over 200 miles per hour. We see - I see photos today showing concrete poles just snapped in two, which I've never seen before in a storm like this.

GREENE: That's amazing.

ALLEN: Yeah, we had high winds - destroyed roofs in communities across the island. And it's that flooding - has been the big issue. They're rescuing people off rooftops in a community called Levittown in that same area near Catano.

GREENE: I can't even imagine how you start to rebuild after something this widespread and destructive.

ALLEN: It's the biggest hurricane since 1932. And you've got 3.4 million American citizens there. It's a U.S. territory. FEMA, luckily, is there, starting to work on it. The first task will be restore communication and get the airport opening, and then the electrical grid is the big one.

GREENE: All right, NPR's correspondent in Miami, Greg Allen. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right, we could see another vote on whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act coming next week. And the current proposal, I mean, it could mean a major shift for our health care system.

KELLY: Yeah, what we were talking about is the bill sponsored by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy. And as they try to corral the votes they're going to need to pass it, we are also hearing a new rebuke of that effort to gut Obamacare, and that rebuke is coming from Barack Obama. The former president spoke at a conference in New York yesterday. He gave his strongest public rebuke yet of the attempts to undo his signature health care law.

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BARACK OBAMA: ...And all of this being done without any demonstrable economic, or actuarial or plain, common-sense rationale. It frustrates, and it's certainly frustrating to have to mobilize every couple of months to keep our leaders from inflicting real human suffering on our constituents.

KELLY: Barack Obama - not the only critic of this new attempt to repeal Obamacare. So we wanted to get a little bit into what's actually in this bill.

GREENE: Yeah, we sure do. And Alison Kodjak is here, NPR's health policy reporter.

Alison, you're describing this new Republican plan as radical.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Yeah, David. It is - makes the most drastic changes of any of the proposals so far. It really dismantles major parts of the Affordable Care Act. The subsidies that help people buy insurance go away. The Medicaid expansion goes away. The individual mandate goes away. And it takes all the money from all these programs, rolls it all up, and it turns it over to the states to use to set up their own systems. And they can use it to do a lot of things, but there's nothing specifically required in the bill that they have to use it for.

GREENE: Well, I mean, at least some governors who want flexibility must like this. But it sounds like there are a good number of governors who are not reacting so well to this plan.

KODJAK: Yeah, it's been a real mixed reaction. There've been a lot of governors who'd said they'd like more flexibility. But earlier this week, there was a letter from ten governors, both Republicans and Democrats, to leader - Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and they are really opposed to it and are asking him to allow a separate, bipartisan effort to go forward.

But, you know, then there are governors who've been really supportive, including Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who is in John McCain's district, and he's considered a swing vote on this issue.

GREENE: Couple issues that have come up in past debates over different proposals have been what happens to people with pre-existing conditions and also what happens to Medicaid. How does this bill handle those issues?

KODJAK: Well, first, on Medicaid, which covers, like, 70 million people, this would roll back the expansion, which itself extended coverage to about 10 million people. And then it just changes the basic program. Right now, Medicaid pays for whatever health care the people in the program need. There's really no limit, which Republicans see as a big problem. This bill caps that spending, and some estimates say that over time, it'll reduce the spending on the program by about 25 percent.

As far as pre-existing conditions go, it allows states to get out of a lot of the rules imposed by Obamacare. So under this bill, if you're in a state that gets a waiver, your insurance policy may not cover some of the basic things that we expect now - mental health care, prescription drugs or hospitalizations.

GREENE: OK, talking about the new health care proposal from Republicans - and it is looking like it could be a very close vote count in the Senate at this point.

KODJAK: Sure does.

GREENE: NPR's Alison Kodjak, thanks, as always. We appreciate it.

KODJAK: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right, today, President Trump is continuing his meetings with world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, and that includes the president of Afghanistan.

KELLY: That's right, and we're going to be watching that meeting very closely. These two men are negotiating the future of Afghanistan. And we know that when President Trump laid out his new war strategy a few weeks back, he kept some specifics to himself. He did not, for example, set benchmarks for measuring progress, and he did not set a timeline for when the U.S. might one day leave Afghanistan. That's a theme that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis picked up on yesterday. Let's listen to him. This is him talking yesterday at the annual Air Force conference.

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JAMES MATTIS: Victory would look like the people and the government of Afghanistan can handle this threat from the terrorists using their own security forces, with international mentors probably there for many years to come.

GREENE: What would victory look like? It's a question that has been perplexing people when it comes to this country for a long time.

KELLY: Sure has.

GREENE: Mary Louise, you actually spoke with the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, yesterday. I mean, what did he say about the strategy going forward and this continued U.S. presence?

KELLY: Well, he said he welcomes the new U.S. strategy. He made clear his expectation is U.S. troops will not return to any combat roles, he's saying. They will stick, as far as he's concerned, to training roles, advisory roles, helping Afghan security forces. He did give one new detail that was really interesting. This is about how much of the region he plans to secure within four years. Let's listen.

PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: The four-year plan involves the goal of really bringing 80 percent of the territory of the country under control. It involves doubling our commando force that's probably the best in the region. A new generation is taking over. And the overhaul of the security forces I think is proceeding very well is - and on course.

GREENE: And I know that this plan, when you came out of the conversation, Mary Louise - that the question is how new this is. And I want to pose that question to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who has spent a lot of time reporting on and in Afghanistan.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So this specific plan - security forces controlling 80 percent of the country within four years - is this new?

BOWMAN: You know, it is new. We haven't heard that before. Right now, the Afghan government controls roughly 60 percent of the country. And that means about one-third of Afghans, or 11 million people, are living under Taliban control or in areas contested with the Taliban, and this is mostly in the south around Kandahar and Helmand.

And, you know, people I talk with say it's going to be very difficult to reach that 80 percent goal in four years. One person I spoke with said it's overly optimistic. Another said he'll be struggling to reach that goal. And there are a variety of reasons.

First of all, there's great corruption in the country. There's a lot of - there's a lack of leadership in the military. And there's a very high illiteracy rate in the country as well, which makes it difficult to create pilots, let's say, or high-end commandos and so forth. So we'll see what happens. But again, people, you know, are scratching their heads about that 80 percent.

KELLY: And I have to say, Tom, as I was interviewing President Ghani yesterday, I was - among the questions I had was, how realistic is this? How ambitious is this? And how on earth do you measure exactly what is and is not under Afghan central government control?

BOWMAN: Exactly.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks so much. We appreciate it - talking to us about Mary Louise's interview with the president of Afghanistan yesterday. And he'll be meeting with President Trump at the U.N. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZERBEAK'S "MIGHTY JUNGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.