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News Brief: Border Enforcement Funds, Tropical Storm, E-Cigarette Lawsuit

Aug 28, 2019
Originally published on August 28, 2019 9:27 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Could it happen again? Two years after Hurricane Maria, a major storm is headed towards Puerto Rico.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. And even as the storm is approaching, the Trump administration is talking about transferring millions of dollars in disaster relief funds away from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The administration wants to take that money away from FEMA Disaster Relief, money that would go towards helping communities clean up and rebuild after storms, and instead use it for border enforcement operations.

MARTIN: NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been following the story and is in studio with us this morning. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: So tell us more about exactly where this money is coming from and where it would go.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the administration plans to move $271 million, more than half of which will be from FEMA for detention beds for migrants and facilities for court cases. As you can imagine, it's being taken pretty personally by some. Remember how in - how Trump publicly feuded with some leaders of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria two years ago. And, you know, I don't think the timing could be much worse. This is peak hurricane season. The majority of all storms occur around this period from mid-August through September.

MARTIN: Right. And so we've obviously heard for many, many months on end about the numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Explain more about what the Trump administration is saying about why it needs to divert these funds.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. The administration claims that this surge at the border has overwhelmed resources, that they have no choice to do it. They say they need this money to address a lack of detention space, particularly for a increase in single adults coming to the border. You know, as you can imagine, Democrats are slamming the decision. They say the administration is overstepping its authority to push their own policies. Senator Chuck Schumer called the plan, quote, "backwards and cruel."

But supporters, they are arguing that Congress has left them no choice. They say the money has to be set - found somewhere because Congress hasn't given it - given them what it needs.

MARTIN: I mean, is that true? I mean, has Congress taken up legislation that would provide these funds? Because, no doubt, their resources are stretched. We've been hearing about how there aren't enough judges, there aren't enough hearing rooms for these immigration courts.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, if you talk to advocates, for sure, that Congress has been providing - it was just a few weeks ago, last month, where - you remember, there was that big hubbub between Congress and the president about humanitarian funds that went back and forth, and they did give millions of dollars for humanitarian needs. The administration says that was for humanitarian needs, not for detention. Advocates did not want money to be used for, quote-unquote, "enforcement activities."

MARTIN: Because they were afraid that if they give more money for detention, that will facilitate more detention...

ORDOÑEZ: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Which they wouldn't necessarily want to see. So you mentioned we are in the midst of hurricane season. Puerto Rico is getting ready for what could be a really major storm. Could this reallocation of these funds from FEMA, I mean, could that directly impact the people in Puerto Rico?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the Department of Homeland Security says it will not. And late yesterday President Trump approved an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico and ordered that federal assistance to help with the local response. I should note, it's not uncommon for funds to be transferred between agencies at the end of the year. DHS says that the funds are from over - you know, leftover money from prior years and that, quote, "absent significant, new catastrophic events," the department believes the funds will have enough money to operate.

But, you know, Trump really didn't help matters when he bemoaned via Twitter how much Congress had previously allocated for recovery efforts for Hurricane Maria, using very inflated figures.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thanks. We appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right, we're going to get more now on details of that very storm that's approaching several Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico.

GREENE: So this is Tropical Storm Dorian. It's expected to pass over Puerto Rico later today. The National Hurricane Center is warning the storm could bring a whole lot of rain, very strong winds and what they're saying is life threatening flash flooding to the island. National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen is saying even if the storm doesn't reach hurricane strength, it could pose a real threat to Puerto Rico.

DENNIS FELTGEN: They are looking at a very significant amount of rain, and that will be especially true on the western and southwestern part of the island where we could be seeing as much as 4 to 6 inches of rain, with isolated 8 inches of rain. And it's been wet, so it won't take much to pull trees down with any kind of tropical storm-force winds.

GREENE: OK. Now, even though this storm is not forecast as of now to be as strong as Hurricane Maria, which of course devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, people on the island are still recovering from that storm, and they are taking precautions here.

MARTIN: NPR's Adrian Florido is in Puerto Rico and joins us now on the line. Adrian, can I ask you to just put on your meteorologist hat and give us the latest on the path of the storm and its severity?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Well, the storm is expected to make landfall somewhere on Puerto Rico's eastern coast later today. I think we got a pretty good description in the introduction of this of the types of impacts it could have - so, you know, heavy rain, heavy rainfall, heavy winds.

MARTIN: Yeah.

FLORIDO: You know, this storm is actually nowhere near as big as Hurricane Maria was two years ago, but it is the first major storm to threaten Puerto Rico since Maria. And Puerto Rico is still very fragile. After Maria, there are tens of thousands of homes that still have those infamous blue tarps over their roofs. And Mother Nature hasn't really put the power grid or the communication systems to the test since Maria, and so this storm could be the first time that we really get a sense of how the infrastructure in Puerto Rico is going to hold up.

MARTIN: I mean, we have had you on recently to talk about all the chaos that's been happening in the government in Puerto Rico. I mean, there's been so many musical chairs about who's actually in charge. And I guess there's some stability now, but is the government ready for this?

FLORIDO: The government says it's ready. You know, two days ago and again last night, the governor, the new governor, Wanda Vazquez, held press conferences. And in the first press conference, she spent, you know, like, half an hour reading off this long list of all the things that she said the government has done to prepare - so things like stock up on utility poles, sign agreements with U.S. companies so that they can arrive quickly and start restoring power should that be needed. She said that they've installed radio communication systems across Puerto Rico. They've acquired more than a thousand generators. They've made sure that hospitals are ready.

So it's this long, long list that she's hoping will reassure people. But, you know, the memories of Hurricane Maria and the government's bungled response to it are still very fresh in people's minds. And so people are skeptical about whether the government really is prepared.

MARTIN: Right. So Franco mentioned earlier that the president, President Trump, tweeted about the pending storm, seeming to bemoan the fact that another storm could be hitting Puerto Rico and the demand for federal funds to meet that disaster response. What do you know about the coordination so far between the federal government and Puerto Rico's government in order to prepare for this?

FLORIDO: I think it's hard to independently assess how good that coordination has been. I mean, the governor says that it has been good. She has praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, and President Trump, who yesterday signed an emergency declaration. FEMA says it's spread hundreds of staff onto the island in anticipation of the storm.

MARTIN: Yeah.

FLORIDO: The real test, of course, will be how the governments respond should a major response be needed.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thanks, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: OK, now we shift our focus to North Carolina, where the state's attorney general, Josh Stein, is taking on e-cigarette companies and what he sees as a public health crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH STEIN: We conquered the nicotine addiction years ago, and in the last three years, the e-cigarette manufacturers have completely evaporated all the gains we made in terms of reducing teen smoking.

GREENE: So Stein has filed lawsuits against eight e-cigarette manufacturers, alleging the companies are illegally targeting children. And this move follows a lawsuit Stein filed in May against San Francisco-based Juul, one of the nation's larger e-cigarette companies.

MARTIN: Jason deBruyn of member station WUNC has been following this, and he joins us on the line. Hi, Jason.

JASON DEBRUYN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: So as we noted, the North Carolina attorney general has already sued Juul. Now he's adding eight other companies. Is the gist the same? Are these suits similar?

DEBRUYN: Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah, they're pretty similar; obviously not exactly the same, but largely they're pretty much similar. And our attorney general has been taking a close look at the e-cigarette industry here lately, and that's especially as smoking, particularly e-cigarette smoking, is up among younger smokers. And our attorney general is saying that that's driven specifically - as you heard at the top, specifically by these e-cigarettes, by vaping.

So regarding those eight manufacturers that he filed suit against, Stein alleges that they are specifically and aggressively targeting kids under the age of 18 - which obviously is the legal smoking age - and in addition to that, that these companies are not taking the precautionary steps to - you know, to verify that these kids are actually 18 when they're buying the devices.

MARTIN: And that's not happening - we're not talking about someone going into a gas station and buying e-cigarettes; this is online. When kids try to buy them online, there's no requirement to verify their age. But I want to ask about the marketing of this. What's the evidence? What does he point to as evidence that these companies are directly targeting kids?

DEBRUYN: So his complaint lists several examples. There is a lot of advertising online, as you mentioned, on social media - Instagram, you know, other social media places where youths spend a lot of time. And the ads really do seem like they're tailored towards young people. There's one ad, for instance, where the e-cigarette device looks like a thumb drive that you might plug into your computer, and the ad reads, oh, Mom, it's just a USB.

MARTIN: Wow.

DEBRUYN: Right? And that kind of language really does make you think that it's targeting children. And in addition to that, there's obviously the issue of flavors. So traditional tobacco products, you might know, are limited to just the two flavors - there's, you know, the traditional tobacco flavor and menthol.

MARTIN: Right.

DEBRUYN: But those restrictions do not apply to e-cigarettes, and some of these flavors really have gotten quite exotic, right? I mean, there's bubble gum, French toast, creme brulee. I mean, the list goes on and on. You might - I'm sure you might have even seen some of the really exotic flavors that are out there.

MARTIN: Right. I don't know how a creme brulee e-cigarette tastes.

DEBRUYN: (Laughter) Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: But yeah. Clearly, they're trying to attract a certain demo.

DEBRUYN: Right. And you could even look at the devices themselves. So there's one example where the device looks like a juice box, and it even has, like, a plastic straw on the side to give a realistic effect. So you can sort of understand why he says that these are targeted towards young people.

MARTIN: And it's also significant, we should note, that this is happening in North Carolina - right? - where the economy clearly - tobacco's been a big part of that state's economy for a long time. Jason deBruyn from member station WUNC Jason, thanks. We appreciate it.

DEBRUYN: You're welcome.

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