Morning News Brief: Harvey Weakens, Sanctuary Cities Ruling
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is not over yet. Harvey has battered the Texas-Louisiana coast for almost a week now. And while the storm has weakened - it's now a tropical depression - Harvey is still really dangerous for a whole lot of people in the region.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah. So, Rachel, here in Houston, the death toll from Harvey is at least 25. But officials fear that's going to climb. We were out yesterday. And you could see floodwaters are really beginning to recede, at least slowly, but thousands of homes are still underwater. And Harvey is moving east and so is its destructive power. It's now the small towns around the Texas-Louisiana border that are really facing a critical situation.
MARTIN: All right, that's where we find NPR's Debbie Elliott. You are in Beaumont, Texas. Debbie, this is not far from the Louisiana border.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Right.
MARTIN: So what's it been like there since Harvey's latest landfall?
ELLIOTT: Well, it's still very much in crisis mode. The rains have stopped but not before inundating both Beaumont here, where I am, and Port Arthur, which is just to the south. I woke up this morning. There's no water service in Beaumont.
Highway exit ramps have been converted into boat launches as volunteers have joined officials. You know, they're trying to get to people - the National Guard, the Coast Guard. They've got helicopters, even city dump trucks trying to get people out of flooded homes. There have been these harrowing rescues. 911 systems are completely overwhelmed.
And the shelters are at capacity. You know, in Port Arthur, they have converted a bowling alley into a makeshift shelter. And the official shelters are so full. They're not taking people. So it's just very chaotic. And the mayor there, Derrick Freeman, is worried about his people. He's got water in his home. And he's telling people, please, don't worry. We're going to come and get you. Here's what he said on his Facebook page.
MARTIN: I don't know if...
ANGIE CRUZ: I look at the television, and people have lost their complete house and clothes and cars.
ELLIOTT: I think that must be somebody else. But anyway, that mayor's very worried. Here, in Beaumont, people are telling people - you know, they're saying the 911 calls were so backed up. They were just telling people to go into survival mode.
MARTIN: Yeah. And there's a lot of industry also - right? - oil and gas in this part of the Gulf Coast. I understand there's at least one plant that's in a dangerous situation.
ELLIOTT: Right. That is in Crosby, Texas. There is a flooded Arkema plant. The neighborhood had to be evacuated. This plant lost refrigeration when its emergency generators were soaked. Now the company is warning that the chemicals, organic peroxides, will catch fire in the coming days - a fire that the company is warning will be explosive and intense.
There's also the possibility of a chemical release there. So that is a serious situation. Then, in Beaumont and Port Arthur, there are just lots of companies and plants. There are oil refineries in point - Port Arthur that are shut down, including the nation's biggest.
MARTIN: So what happens now, I mean, as you see this unfolding across that region?
ELLIOTT: Well, it's still very much the search and rescue and survive and deal...
MARTIN: With the immediate crisis, yeah.
ELLIOTT: ...You know, mode - trying to take care of people's needs.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Debbie Elliott, joining us on the line from Beaumont, Texas. Thanks, Debbie. I'm going to turn back to you, David. The rain has stopped in Houston. Sun supposed to come out. Are you seeing anyone trying to get home?
GREENE: Yeah. I mean, you have all of those people who are in the, you know, the convention center downtown. Many people not returning home yet. But some people are just beginning to make that journey to assess the damage. And we made the trip yesterday with Angie Cruz. She actually does security for the hotel where we've been staying.
She lives in a little prefab about 15 minutes from the hotel. She had no idea what she was going to find. I mean, Rachel, remember, yesterday I told you about Cypress Creek. That is that neighborhood that was completely submerged in water. It felt like a lake. Angie's just about a mile from there.
It was hard to get to her house because of flooding. And we finally got close, and Angie couldn't jump this fence. And so she actually gave us her key and asked us to go look inside, take some pictures. The floodwater got so close to her house, Rachel, but it spared her in the end. Her house was totally dry. And here she is.
CRUZ: I look at the television, and people have lost their complete house and clothes and cars. So I'm blessed.
GREENE: Feeling blessed. I mean, it was just a rare positive note in our reporting here this week.
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MARTIN: The Trump administration's immigration policies are facing a setback in Texas.
GREENE: Yeah. That's right, Rachel. A federal judge here just temporarily blocked a state bill that punishes so-called sanctuary cities. This law would have let police officers ask people about their immigration status during routine interactions like a traffic stop. This move by the federal judge now prevents officials from asking anything like that while so many people are trying to get help after Hurricane Harvey.
MARTIN: All right. To talk more about this, we're joined by NPR's Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: What's been the reaction to this so far?
HORSLEY: Well, I haven't seen any tweets from the president yet. But Texas Governor Greg Abbott was quick to condemn this decision. He says it makes Texas less safe. And he promised an appeal. As always, this is tinged with politics. The federal judge who issued the order, Orlando Garcia, is a Bill Clinton appointee and a former Democratic state lawmaker in Texas. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that will hear the appeal is considered one of the more conservative appeals courts in the country.
MARTIN: And this is part of a broader fight over sanctuary cities that's happening nationally right?
HORSLEY: That's right. This Texas fight pits the big Democratic cities in that state, including Houston, against the Republican-controlled legislature. But we're seeing this play out across the country. We have, for example, the city of Chicago has challenged the federal effort to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. The question is partly legal. That is, who gets to decide policing policies - the local, state or federal government?
And it's also partly practical. Although, Texas Governor Abbott says this decision makes Texas less safe, the advocates for a different approach to policing say that cracking down on sanctuary cities and having police deputized to enforce immigration laws compromises the trust of immigrant communities that cops need to fight crime. These are some of the same issues that were swirling around the practices, prosecution and ultimate pardon of Texas - Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
MARTIN: And, of course, all this is playing out against a backdrop of Hurricane Harvey, which has weakened - become a tropical depression at this point. But that's not insignificant that it's happen at this time.
HORSLEY: That's right. The Houston police chief, Art Acevedo, was at the convention center when he got news of this decision. And he high-fived another police officer. Texas authorities have been trying to reassure immigrants that evacuation centers, for example, will not be checking immigration papers.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horley (ph) - Scott Horsley this morning. I'll get it out. Hey, Scott, thanks so much.
HORSLEY: You're welcome, Rachel.
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MARTIN: Now to another story about Google and free speech.
GREENE: Yeah. You say another story because you remember that Google fired one of its employees earlier this summer for expressing offensive ideas about women in the tech world. Well, now, Google is back in the news. This time for allegedly pressuring a Washington-based think tank into firing one of its researchers because he criticized Google's business practices. This is according to a report in The New York Times. Critics are really sounding an alarm here about the influence that tech firms wield and Google in particular.
MARTIN: NPR's Aarti Shahani is here. Aarti, this has to do with the think tank in D.C. called the New America Foundation, which has gotten - we should say - more than $20 million from Google over the years. And there was this kerfuffle - right? - because a researcher connected to that think tank wrote something that Google didn't like. What happens then?
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: (Laughter) All right. Well, let me tell you two versions of the story, OK? In version A, Google funds the think tank New America. And a New America researcher named Barry Flynt - Lynn - excuse me - criticizes Google for being a monopoly. The chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, is not happy about that. And this researcher gets axed. OK, so coincidence? Plenty of people are tweeting, no, it's not.
In version, B, yeah, it's a coincidence. The real problem is not Lynn's views. It's that he says one thing and does another and that he's harming other projects at New America. That's...
MARTIN: Which is the New America line. Yeah, exactly.
SHAHANI: Yes. That's what...
MARTIN: Anne-Marie Slaughter who runs that organization.
SHAHANI: Exactly. That's what she says. So, you know, the story is a bit he said, she said. I think it's striking a nerve because, you know, as you both mentioned, there is this growing fear among, you know, people in think tanks and universities and the media that, wow, Google and a handful of tech giants have so much power. It's terrifying.
MARTIN: Although, I mean, what's the upshot of any of this? I mean, Google is this this monolith in the tech world. But it is a private company, right?
SHAHANI: Yeah, it is. And we've absolutely seen big corporations influencing research in the past, right? Like, that's nothing new. It's happened and continues to happen with oil and gas and pharmaceuticals. I'd say the big difference here is that a company like Google is controlling both the distribution of ideas and the creation of ideas, right?
So they make their money by organizing the world's information - having a secret algorithm that puts things in order for us. We don't know how. And then generating so much money from the ad revenue, you know, they can pay to shape the information, the content the rest of us are creating, right?
And so it's like Google - and you could include others like Facebook - it's like they're managing the pipes. And they're increasingly deciding what goes into the pipes. And the rest of us are just kind of drinking it up.
MARTIN: But is there anything - is there anything to be done about that?
SHAHANI: (Laughter) Well, you know, one very basic thing, I think, among people I've spoken to is to resist self-censorship. Yesterday, I called around to people who get their money from Google. I spoke with this one professor who was like, you know, there is an area of research I've thought about doing to look at the Communications Decency Act, which basically protects Google and other Internet companies from being liable for fake news and slander. Professor's not touching it because professor gets money from Google - self-censorship.
MARTIN: Ah (ph) so complicated. NPR tech reporter, Aarti Shahani. Hey, Aarti, thanks as always.
SHAHANI: Thank you.
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