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News Brief: Hurricane Aftermath, Texas Abortion Law Fallout, NRA's Future

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ida has left behind a path of death and destruction from the Gulf Coast all the way into New England, and the death toll continues to rise.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The power is still out in parts of Louisiana, where Ida first swept ashore and wiped out entire neighborhoods. President Biden is going to travel there today. The greatest loss of life, though, is now in the Northeast. At least 46 people died when the storm system unleashed tornadoes and record amounts of rain from Maryland to Massachusetts. Rising water swept into homes, trapped people in their cars and apartments and prompted many hundreds of water rescues.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jasmine Garsd has been surveying the damage in New York. Jasmine, I know you were out and about yesterday. What were you seeing, and what can you tell us about the rest of the Northeast?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Yesterday New York City was slow. Subway services came to a faltering start. It was more crowded than usual. I, myself, had to go to - from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and it was a bit of an odyssey with all the delayed trains. In New Jersey and Philadelphia, there were several tornadoes. There are dozens of homes that have just been leveled. Communities from Pennsylvania to upstate New York continue to deal with flooding. And beyond the physical damage, the loss of life has been astounding - 46 people in several states.

MARTINEZ: Are rescues still happening?

GARSD: Right now what we're looking at is recovery. In some parts like southern New Jersey, where tornadoes hit, houses just got leveled. And that's going to take time. There's also tens of thousands that are still without power in Pennsylvania and the state of New York.

MARTINEZ: The thing is everyone knew these storms were coming, but the severity, the intensity seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Now, what are officials in these communities saying about preparedness?

GARSD: I mean, I think there was a big element of surprise. We knew it was going to storm. But even myself, as I made my way back home Wednesday in a flooding Brooklyn, I thought, you know, this is a lot worse than I thought it was going to be. Yesterday, Governor Kathy Hochul was touring New York City and reviewing the storm damage. And I thought her message was so interesting. This is our new reality, and we need to focus on preparing for it - fix the drainage system; make sure the subways can handle this. And here she is speaking yesterday from Long Island.

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KATHY HOCHUL: People have been warning for decades that the effect of climate change and what it would do to our communities. It's happening right now. It is not a futurist threat. It is a current situation, and it is the status quo.

GARSD: So I think this marks a pivot point. We're no longer trying to prevent climate change. It's here, so let's adapt.

MARTINEZ: And the other part of this is most of the people who died from the flooding died in their homes. So what questions about housing are now being raised because of Ida?

GARSD: Well, the flooding and the subsequent deaths have raised the issue of illegal housing. About a dozen of the people who died here in New York were living in basement units. And we know one family who drowned in Queens, a toddler and parents, were living in an illegal basement unit, and it had not been approved for habitation. Housing, affordable housing - this has always been an issue in New York City. But during the pandemic, it's gotten significantly worse. And so my sense is if we're going to talk about infrastructure improvement for future storms and flash floods, there needs to be a conversation about people's living conditions here in New York City.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jasmine Garsd in New York. Jasmine, thanks a lot.

GARSD: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: In Texas, doctors and clinics that provide abortion are facing a new and difficult reality.

MARTIN: Abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy are now illegal. That's been the case since a new Texas law went into effect this week and the Supreme Court ruled against any temporary halt of the law despite several ongoing legal challenges.

MARTINEZ: Here to understand the magnitude of this change, Ashley Lopez of member station KUT visited a Whole Women's Health (ph) clinic in Austin. Ashley, tell us so what's going on inside these health clinics in Texas. Were patients still being seen where you were?

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, they were. People were coming in for appointments but, you know, not necessarily getting the care they wanted. So I visited one of four clinics in Texas run by Whole Women's Health. I arrived later in the morning, and 11 patients had already been seen in that one clinic to confirm their pregnancies or to see how far along they were. And of those 11, only three still qualified to get an abortion under the new law. The pregnancies of the other eight had advanced past the legal limit.

MARTINEZ: OK. So what do the doctors and other medical staff do then?

LOPEZ: Well, they can't really do anything. I spoke to Dr. Joe Nelson, and he told me about a patient who came in Wednesday. She had already gone through a medication abortion, which is through taking pills. It's a very safe process and effective. But in very rare cases, it doesn't work. And that's what happened to this patient. Nelson says she came back to the clinic for next steps.

JOE NELSON: Here she was, still pregnant. The law was passed. And not only was she now forced to continue a pregnancy that she didn't want, it's now a complicated pregnancy because of the medications she took. And so, you know, walking into that room, all I could do was just sit with her as she cried. I mean, there's nothing else I could do.

LOPEZ: He said he's also been surprised by how many patients were blindsided by this law. Many people don't follow the news that closely, and they woke up that morning not realizing their abortion rights had been severely curtailed at that point.

MARTINEZ: What did the clinic workers say to you about the new law? I mean, how do they feel about this?

LOPEZ: They feel angry, sad and defiant. No one said they were thinking of quitting their job over this. The workers have a lot of resolve. These are issues they care deeply about, and they're used to fighting tough laws in Texas. But the way this law was written, they're also very vulnerable right now. The law was designed not to be enforced by the government. Instead, enforcement is in the hands of the public. Anyone can now file a civil lawsuit against anyone who they think might be helping a woman get an abortion after the new legal cutoff. As we said, that's about six weeks. But despite the situation, they are personally - and staff members told me they're most worried about the patients. I talked to Sonja Miller, who is an administrator.

SONJA MILLER: When you have to look a woman in the eye and say, I'm sorry. According to the sonogram, you are - we found fetal cardiac activity, and we have to turn you away. The state of Texas will not allow you to have an abortion.

LOPEZ: This clinic and the other clinics in Texas are still fighting this in court and hope they can ultimately get this law struck down in the future. But we don't know if or when those challenges will be heard.

MARTINEZ: That's Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin. Ashley, as always, thanks a lot.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: The National Rifle Association had planned to celebrate its 150th anniversary this weekend.

MARTIN: Yeah. Instead, for the second year in a row, the NRA is canceling its annual meeting in Houston because of the coronavirus pandemic. It's one more setback for an organization that faces multiple financial and legal problems following allegations of misconduct by its leadership.

MARTINEZ: NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak joins us now. Tim, bring us up to speed. Exactly what kind of trouble is the NRA in right now?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: So over the last two years, the National Rifle Association has faced a litany of challenges. So that includes congressional investigations, board resignations, internal infighting and allegations of financial misconduct. And all of this culminated in an effort by New York Attorney General Letitia James to dissolve the organization. She's accused NRA executives, including CEO Wayne LaPierre, of improper spending - tens of millions of dollars for things like luxurious meals, private jet travel and exotic vacations. And in an attempt to halt the march of James' litigation, the NRA tried to file for bankruptcy, but that bid was rejected. All of this has really frustrated many of the NRA's own members, like Ron Carter who helps lead Save the Second, a group of NRA members that is seeking accountability within their organization.

RON CARTER: Members have been leaving in droves as a result of the, not only negligence, but perhaps pillaging and plundering of the association by the NRA leadership.

MARTINEZ: Now, rising COVID cases have forced the NRA to cancel their convention. How important is this? I mean, what kind of an impact will that have?

MAK: Well, as we've mentioned here, it's the second cancellation in as many years. And this is significant monetary cost for the organization. Here's Steve Gutowski. He's the founder of The Reload. That's a pro-Second Amendment gun issues publication.

STEVE GUTOWSKI: I think it has a very real impact on their finances specifically because the NRA annual meeting is the largest fundraising event of the year for this group.

MAK: The NRA annual meeting is also a place for the group to showcase its large membership and support from powerful politicians. That won't happen now as a result of this cancellation. And members who are seeking accountability from the group's executives, like Ron Carter, they won't be able to meet and challenge these executives in person like they've done in the past. In 2019, for example, a group of NRA members revolted on the floor of the convention, seeking to oust existing leadership.

MARTINEZ: All right. So they've got financial and legal trouble. So what does this mean, then, for the NRA's future?

MAK: Well, the NRA is down but not out. It has radically cut costs over the last two years. Spending is down 43% compared to a presidential cycle ago, for example. In 2016, the NRA was a key contributor to Donald Trump's presidential win. It was unable to match that level of spending in 2020 when Trump lost. But the NRA has been able to bring costs down in line with plodding revenues. These are revenues that dropped as the NRA became more deeply trapped in these scandals that we've been talking about. Here's an assessment by Brian Mittendorf. He's an accounting professor at Ohio State University.

BRIAN MITTENDORF: Financially speaking, I would say it is sustainable.

MAK: So what we might see is an NRA that will continue to exist just with a smaller footprint and fewer resources.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR investigative reporter Tim Mak. Tim, thanks a lot.

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