News Brief: America's Longest War Ends, Ida Damage, Mask Mandate Bans

Aug 31, 2021
Originally published on August 31, 2021 6:27 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Last night, the Pentagon tweeted out a picture, a night vision image of the last U.S. soldier to leave Afghanistan.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

That was commanding general of the 82nd Airborne, Major General Chris Donahue, dressed in fatigues, carrying a rifle at his side. He was the last person to board the C-17 that took off one minute before midnight. And shortly after that, Secretary of State Tony Blinken talked about what's next.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: A new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It's one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun.

MARTINEZ: But Blinken also said all U.S. diplomats were now gone from what was one of America's largest diplomatic missions. He said a new team would set up operations in Doha, Qatar.

KING: NPR's Jackie Northam was watching the final hours of the pullout from Islamabad, where we reach her now. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: The State Department says 123,000 people have been airlifted out, including about 6,000 Americans. But a few hundred Americans were left behind, along with many, many Afghans who are afraid that the Taliban will target them because they worked with the U.S. What is the plan for these people?

NORTHAM: Well, the State Department is trying to keep in touch with the Americans. Many of them simply couldn't make it to the airport, in part because it was just too dangerous. Helping the Afghans is a real challenge because many are living in fear of retribution by the Taliban, and travel can be a problem. You know, the only real ways to leave the country are by air or over land, which is very dangerous. The Taliban have given assurance that they will allow people to leave, especially if they have the right paperwork. But, you know, let's just see what - you know, if that happens.

KING: If the U.S. military and American diplomats have left Kabul and there is no diplomatic presence, how do they propose to keep working on doing this?

NORTHAM: The U.S. is setting up operations in Doha - and that includes consular operations - to continue to try to get these people out of Afghanistan. It's also working with allied nations to pressure the Taliban, to let foreigners and Afghans leave. The world community does have some leverage. You know, the Taliban needs foreign aid. And whether it gets it or not depends on their behavior, and that includes on this issue.

KING: And is the international airport in Kabul still closed?

NORTHAM: At the moment, it's closed, yes. The Taliban have said that they'll reopen it. But, you know, there's a lot more to operating an airport than just securing the perimeter, which is what it's been doing for the past couple weeks. But there have been discussions involving Turkey and Qatar to help run the airport. You know, Noel, it's not just about getting people out. The airport is also needed to get humanitarian aid and supplies into Afghanistan. Some of the emergency supplies are arriving in other cities, but not Kabul. And what has arrived is just really a fraction of what's needed there.

KING: OK. Let me ask you a big-picture question, Jackie. This is a very uncertain period for Afghanistan. The country does not even have a government right now. Are the Taliban trying to form one?

NORTHAM: Well, there's been a lot of meetings, so it could have been decided, but nothing's been announced. But frankly, the Taliban are not known for their transparency. So there's a lot of guesswork going on as to who will be the key figures, whether it'll be inclusive, the government, and also how the Taliban run the country. There are divisions within the group. There are hard-liners. And then there are relatively moderate Taliban - heavy on the word relatively there. Whichever branch of the Taliban wins, there's no question they face real challenges ahead. It's an incredibly poor country. It depends on Western dollars. On top of that, there's drought and COVID-19. You know, they've got a lot of work ahead of them.

KING: NPR's Jackie Northam in Islamabad. Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much.

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KING: All right. In Louisiana, the picture of the destruction caused by Hurricane Ida is coming into clearer focus.

MARTINEZ: Yeah - uprooted trees, crushed cars, building debris and, possibly the biggest problem of all, much of southern Louisiana has no electricity.

KING: NPR's Liz Baker is in New Orleans this morning. Hi, Liz.

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: What did you see when you drove around New Orleans yesterday?

BAKER: Well, in the city, at least, there's no flooding. So it looks really different from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But it does look like a big windstorm came through here. There's leaves and branches just everywhere, uprooted trees, slabs of tin roofing curled around unlucky cars. Some buildings have extensive damage. We did see one brick building downtown that just completely collapsed. Some homes were partially crushed by large trees. Here's Darlene Wilson (ph). She lives right under the Mississippi River levee, and her home was fine. But like everyone else around here, she's out of power. And we caught her venturing out to find ice to keep her refrigerated food from spoiling.

DARLENE WILSON: The water is on low pressure, no air and, well, now raining. And this is the result of it right here. Trees falling and limbs and everything else - you got the roofs down on this side. You know - we probably - sure we've got other people have worse situations than this (ph). But this is it.

BAKER: And on Ms. Wilson's street, like nearly every other street here, there was at least one downed power line lying across the road.

KING: Yeah, the latest number is that at least a million people don't have electricity. Is there any sense of when it will come back on?

BAKER: Well, there's no real way to know for sure just yet. But the energy company here, Entergy, says it could be weeks to get power restored.

KING: Weeks - wow.

BAKER: Yeah, weeks. And it's not just a matter of fixing those residential lines and utility poles in the neighborhoods. And make no mistake, that is going to be a really big job. But the biggest concern right now is there was this huge transmission tower that fell into the Mississippi River, and that took out a main electrical artery for a large portion of greater New Orleans.

KING: I guess the fortunate thing here is that many people did evacuate. But for people who stayed, who stayed behind, what did they tell you about how they rode out this storm?

BAKER: Well, like you said, lots of people did evacuate on Saturday before the storm hit. But Ida came up so fast. It was upgraded to a major hurricane basically in one afternoon. And so because of that, there wasn't time to declare a mandatory evacuation for New Orleans. And Noel, let's also remember, not everybody who wants to leave can afford to leave.

KING: Yeah.

BAKER: Some people also stayed because of their jobs. Think medical workers who were already dealing with a huge surge of COVID patients and couldn't leave. But for those who did decide to ride out this storm, all the folks that we've talked to say they are not going to try to do it again next time because Ida was just way too scary. People who stuck it out in their homes had to listen to the wind howl for hours, wondering if they were going to be OK every time there was a loud crash or a strong gust. And this is New Orleans, where residents will list with pride the big ones they've rode out in the past.

KING: Yeah, that sounds terrifying.

Is southern Louisiana getting the help it needs, whether that is from the state government or the federal government?

BAKER: Well, right now we're still in the damage assessment phase and trying to get a better sense of what resources and repairs are needed. Yesterday, there was some search and rescue efforts going on in some of the coastal areas to get people out who got caught by the storm surge. Five thousand National Guard and 25,000 linemen from all over the country have been sent down to help with recovery and repair efforts. So we'll just have to wait and see in the coming days whether that aid is enough and what else is needed.

KING: NPR's Liz Baker in New Orleans. Thank you, Liz.

BAKER: Thank you.

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KING: All right. Five states have been warned that the federal government is examining their efforts to stop school districts from requiring masks in classrooms.

MARTINEZ: The Department of Education says bans on masking requirements in Iowa, Utah, South Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma could keep some students from safely attending schools, and that might violate the students' civil rights.

KING: NPR's Cory Turner has been covering this one. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What exactly is the Department of Education arguing here?

TURNER: Well, as you said, the states that got these warning letters all have some form of state ban on requiring masks in schools, even as the delta variant surges. So the department's Office for Civil Rights is specifically concerned right now about students with disabilities who may be at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19. In the past year, Noel, I've spoken with many parents of kids with disabilities whose kids are also immunocompromised in some way. And they're really worried about the idea of sending them back to schools where masks are essentially optional. The department says its investigations will focus on whether these mask mandate bans are discriminatory insofar as they prevent students with disabilities from safely coming back for in-person education.

KING: That's an interesting argument. So A listed the states - Iowa, Utah, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma. The states where we really hear about mask bans or bans on the mandate are Texas and Florida. Why are they not being investigated?

TURNER: Yeah - and also Arkansas and Arizona.

KING: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

TURNER: The department says it's not investigating those states because as a result of either court orders or state actions, those bans aren't actually being enforced right now. It's also worth noting in Florida, for example, when district leaders defied the state's ban, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told them publicly, I've got your back. You know, and this all goes back to a memo that President Biden issued a few weeks ago where he told Cardona to use the full force of the Ed Department to push back on these bans.

KING: And so what happens if a state is found to be in violation of a federal civil rights law?

TURNER: Well, that's not entirely clear because when it comes to schools, the department's best leverage has always been money. But federal funding, in many cases - if not most cases - is really meant to help our most vulnerable school communities. So withholding it could actually do more harm than good. In fact, on a recent appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," Cardona was asked specifically about this. And he said withholding funds, quote, "doesn't usually work" because those who suffer are the students.

KING: Cory, did you get an opportunity to talk with any of the state superintendents who got these letters saying you are facing a civil rights investigation?

TURNER: Yeah. This is really interesting. So we've heard some responses so far. Utah's top education official issued a statement saying Utah's policy does allow local governments and public health officials to require masking in schools locally. In South Carolina, the state superintendent was really clear yesterday that she'd already said publicly she's worried about the same kind of discrimination that the Ed Department is. And then I had a really interesting conversation last night with Oklahoma state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. She is an elected Republican, and she told me that she also supports this investigation. She said Oklahoma's ban on mask mandates is, quote, "preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person." She did not mince words with me, Noel. She said she wants the state law to be stricken.

KING: OK. So it sounds like superintendents may be disagreeing with governors openly here. NPR's Cory Turner covers education. Thank you, Cory. We appreciate it.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.