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News Brief: Hurricane Dorian, Fatal Boat Fire, Joe Biden


The National Hurricane Center sends out hourly updates on major storms because often it's about lives, right? Lives are at stake when a storm is moving quickly.


The data for Hurricane Dorian tell a different and devastating story. For one day now, the storm has stalled over the Bahamas. Throughout that day, flooding and wind have beaten Grand Bahama Island and the nearby Abaco Islands. Think of the difference between taking one punch and a hundred punches.


INSKEEP: The Bahamas Foreign Minister Darren Henfield spoke with reporters yesterday.


DARREN HENFIELD: From all accounts, we have received catastrophic damage. It is not safe to go outdoors. Power lines are down. Lamp poles are down, trees across the street.

INSKEEP: And much of the eastern United States is watching to see where Dorian finally moves next.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen is in West Palm Beach, Fla. He has been tracking the storm and joins us now. Hey, Greg.


MARTIN: We heard the foreign minister there giving some details about the damage that this storm has left behind. What else do you know?

ALLEN: Well, you know, the damage, of course, is still happening on Grand Bahama Island today. As Steve mentioned, the storm is parked over the islands, and it's been there for more than a day. It is expected to start moving away later today. But in the meantime, we're seeing video and pictures from the island which showed that high winds and floodwaters destroyed thousands of homes. You see cars overturned, roofs missing. We have our estimate from the International Red Cross that maybe 13,000 homes were destroyed on those islands.

The storm surge just inundated Abaco and Grand Bahama Island. The airport in Grand Bahama Island, we understand, is under 6 feet of water. The prime minister suggests at least five people are dead, and that's a number that's unfortunately likely to rise in the days ahead. Information's just coming out so slowly, you know. And many reports there of people stranded in their attics and on roofs, still waiting for help.

MARTIN: So, I mean, as authorities try to figure out what their response looks like, I guess if the rain is still falling, the storm is still happening, it's hard to even send first responders out to help those people.

ALLEN: That's exactly right, and it's not possible while Dorian still sits over the island. It's expected to move away, as I say, from the Bahamas later today. And Bahamian officials hope to do a flyover, they say, of Abaco this morning or today sometime if the winds drop enough. But they say that no aid or a real survey of the damage is going to be possible until tomorrow at the earliest. And you've got at least some 70,000 people affected by all this. The prime minister says they know, when they go out, they're going to find unprecedented destruction.

MARTIN: So what now? Like, as we look towards where the storm might move - I mean, first, Florida was safe, and then it wasn't safe, and it's just been so hard to track, right? What do we know about what communities are most vulnerable?

ALLEN: Right. There's - you really cannot consider yourself safe if you're along the southeastern coast in the U.S. right now. Once it starts moving away from the Bahamas, it's going to head northwest, slowly at first; it'll pick up speed in the days ahead. But it's just 100 miles west of where I am in West Palm Beach, so it's very dangerously close to the Florida coast and will remain dangerously close as it moves north.

It's going to stay offshore at least until Thursday, the National Hurricane Center says, and it will weaken a bit as it moves north. But that's somewhat, you know, misleading because it's going to still be a hurricane - be at hurricane strength all the way up - all week long as it makes its way up the Eastern Seaboard.

MARTIN: As you have traveled around, have you seen signs of preparations?

ALLEN: Oh, yes. I mean, people here are taking it very seriously. There's been mandatory evacuations ordered all along the southeast coast, from Florida up to North Carolina. Coastal areas may see hurricane-force winds and flooding. People know that. And there's a chance the storm could actually jog to the west as it turns and even make landfall somewhere on the southeast coast. So it's a concern here, of course.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen. Thanks, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome.


MARTIN: OK. This audio has come out from a mayday call between the Coast Guard and the diving boat off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California that caught fire.

INSKEEP: We're not going to play this audio until we confirm who is speaking and whether they are alive or dead. We will tell you some of what the call says. A dispatcher asks, what is your position? And someone on board that boat apparently responds, I can't breathe. Thirty-nine people were on board the diving boat Conception, and by the time firefighters arrived, the boat was engulfed in flames. Of those people on board, only five are confirmed as rescued.

MARTIN: NPR's Vanessa Romo is there in California covering this. Vanessa, what do we know? I mean, that's the basic question, right? Do we know why the fire started?

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: We don't yet know why the fire started. Officials haven't released any details about what caused it. What they have said is that the five crew members who did survive the incident were already awake when the fire erupted. And apparently, they were above deck, and they jumped off the boat, which was about 20 yards offshore. They managed to get ahold of a dinghy and paddle their way to a nearby boat.

Unfortunately, the passengers - 33 in all - were below deck, probably asleep, as the boat was swallowed by flames. And then a sixth crew member is still missing. Within four hours of that initial mayday call going out, the boat had been completely destroyed and sank to the bottom of the ocean.

MARTIN: Huh. Do we know - who were these people who were on the boat?

ROMO: Well, they were scuba divers who were going out for a three-day excursion that started on Saturday. In terms of the victims, so far, what we know from Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, he said there are - four adult bodies were recovered yesterday afternoon - two of them were women; two of them were men. He said they would be identified through DNA. And then some hours into the search, Brown said that another four bodies were discovered on the ocean floor, but they had not been brought out of the water.

MARTIN: Wow. So at this press conference, the U.S. Coast Guard captain, Monica Rochester, was talking to reporters, and she had this to say.


MONICA ROCHESTER: We will search all the way through the night, into the morning. But I think we all should be prepared to move into the worst outcome.

MARTIN: Sounds like it might not be a rescue mission for much longer, right?

ROMO: It's becoming more of a search mission, and overnight the Associated Press reported that 25 people have been confirmed dead. When I called officials, they would not confirm that number, but they did say that additional victims are being recovered and received.

MARTIN: Do you know who owns this vessel? Any other details about the boat itself?

ROMO: It's a company called Truth Aquatics. They have several of these scuba diving boats. Coast Guard officials confirmed that the vessel is inspected annually and that it has been in regulatory compliance. Petty Officer Mark Barney, who I spoke with, told me that, as a commercial vessel, this is supposed to have life rafts and life jackets. It's supposed to accommodate up to 40 people safely.

And they're supposed to have something called an EPIRB, an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, which automatically sends a distress signal to the Coast Guard when it hits the water. It's unclear, however, if there was one of these on board of the Conception. But those are the types of details that local and federal agents are investigating.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Vanessa Romo for us on this story. Thank you, Vanessa. We appreciate it.

ROMO: Thanks, Rachel.


MARTIN: OK, an admission to make - I have never been to the great state of Iowa. But I understand it is really great; it's a lovely place.

INSKEEP: It's a lovely state. It's - Des Moines is a wonderful city to visit. And just traveling across, you meet a lot of great people.

MARTIN: Right. So because of how our electoral process works, it is a state with an enormous amount of political influence, and you know, it's sort of the same for Joe Biden. He's just been part of the political firmament for so long, he's got a lot of influence and a natural advantage in the race for the White House.

INSKEEP: And Biden was in Iowa on Labor Day talking with labor unions, who are a major part of the Democratic Party, as are voters of color and young people. Biden argues that he can bring them all together to defeat President Trump.

MARTIN: So that is the case that he made to voters in Iowa, also to Asma Khalid of the NPR Politics Podcast, when she and Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio sat down with the former vice president. And Asma joins us now from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Good morning, my friend.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: So the former vice president has been under a lot of scrutiny recently for conflating the details of this story about a military veteran that he likes to tell on the campaign trail. You asked him about it. What'd he say?

KHALID: Yeah. And so, Rachel, just a quick backstory - so, I mean, Biden has been prone to flubs and gaffes for years, but this specific story is a story that was reported out by The Washington Post. You know, Biden has been telling this dramatic story about the war in Afghanistan, an anecdote about this war hero. And what it seems is that he conflated and confused facts from multiple different incidents and created this one composite story. Biden has said that this was not intentional; he was not trying to mislead anyone with that story. But he also argues that this kind of mistake has nothing to do with his ability to serve as president. Here's what he told us.


JOE BIDEN: That has nothing to do with the judgment of whether or not you send troops to war, the judgment of whether you bring someone home, the judgment of whether or not you decide on a health care policy.

KHALID: Not judgment, though, Mister...

BIDEN: You understand that.

KHALID: No, no, not judgment but details.

BIDEN: Detail.

KHALID: But that's something I've heard from some voters - maybe not at your events - but details.

BIDEN: Well, but the details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making if, in fact, I forget that it was Rodriguez of all the times. I've been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq and Bosnia Kosovo as much as anybody, except maybe my deceased friend John McCain and maybe Lindsey Graham.

MARTIN: But you - as we just heard there, Asma, you seized on what he said when - quote, "the details are irrelevant," which is sort of a strange thing to say in this election, when Biden's positioning himself against this particular president.

KHALID: Yeah. I mean, he speaks about his intention. And Rachel, his basic point is that, you know, sure, he may not be a man of nuance, but he has experience, and he has judgment, and he knows the issues. So really, you know, how big of a deal is it if he mixes up the name of who pinned what medal on whom? His point is that mixing up the details doesn't take away from the broader message and experience that he has.

MARTIN: What did you learn when talking to him about how he's using his time in the Obama White House? I mean, every time you turn around, it seems he's talking about Obama being his best friend. He ties himself closely with the former president. But there is a danger in that, too, isn't there?

KHALID: I mean, there could be among the sort of ultraleft activist base of the party. But, you know, look - those are the folks who have already expressed reservations to me. They feel that Biden is too moderate of a candidate. You know, when he talks about President Obama - and you hear this quite a bit on the campaign; him referring to his buddy Barack - he sort of is trying to tie himself to the values that President Obama had during his time in office.

But what he told us, which I thought was interesting, is he also doesn't see this as an extension of the Obama administration, doesn't see this as being a third term of the Obama administration because he says a lot has changed in the country over - you know, under a Trump administration, that it's going to take a lot to repair that damage. And specifically, you know, he talked about climate and guns. But really, Rachel, the central point is he's trying to point to the values he has, and he told us that he and Obama were on the same page when it came to values.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Asma Khalid of the NPR Politics Podcast. You can hear the full interview with the former vice president and Democratic hopeful on the NPR Politics Podcast. Asma, thanks. We appreciate it.

KHALID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "THE MONSOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.