News Brief: Hurricane Dorian, Loan Forgiveness Update, Pence Trip
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hurricane Dorian is drifting northward along the East Coast, and people in a string of American coastal cities are waiting to see where it stops in.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Right. We've already seen aerial images of the Bahamas where whole neighborhoods look like they're destroyed. The prime minister there called it generational devastation. Now, the damage was so serious in part because the hurricane stalled over the Bahamas. And it's still moving really slowly, only about 8 mph as of this morning.
INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn is in Savannah, Ga, one of reporter - one of a number of reporters we have up and down the East Coast. Bobby, good morning.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey. How are you doing?
INSKEEP: OK. How's the weather where you are?
ALLYN: So right now in Savannah, I got to be honest, it's pretty mild. I mean, there's been steady rain here for hours, and the wind gusts are shaking the Spanish-moss-draped trees that dot this, you know, beautiful historic city.
ALLYN: But it's completely boarded up and deserted. Now, farther out along some of Georgia's barrier islands, the gusts are far, far stronger. And there are serious rain bands there causing concerns about all sorts of water-related concerns. And it does seem, at this point, that the brunt of Dorian may be bypassing the Georgia coast as it starts to make its way toward the Carolinas. But the eye of the storm is pretty close to us right now.
INSKEEP: Well, help me picture that, if we can. I've been looking at the National Hurricane Center map. I know you're there on the coast of Georgia. Looks like Dorian is - what? - just, like, straight east of you almost?
ALLYN: Exactly. It's about 70 miles straight east of Savannah. And so you know, that's a pretty close pass. But it's far enough away to spare Georgia of any, you know, serious catastrophic impacts like we saw in the Bahamas. But still, you know, we've got galloping winds of 115 mph. It's a Category 3 storm. And it is moving towards Charleston right now.
INSKEEP: Charleston, S.C., in the next state up the coast - how are people preparing there?
ALLYN: So as far as I know, you know, officials are saying loud and clear, don't try to mess with this storm; get away as fast as you can. There are evacuation orders in place. Already, though, the rain there is quite significant. There's, you know, thousands of people without power. This is going to be a really long 36 hours for the Carolinas.
INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm paying attention to this, especially to Charleston. I was visiting there recently. And someone said, you realize there are parts of this city that are like New Orleans? They just kind of flood when it rains, much less a hurricane. So where do things stand in terms of evacuation orders?
ALLYN: So in Georgia, more than 400,000 people are under evacuation orders. And you know, when that first happened, highways turned into this place where everyone was just rushing and trying to get out as fast as they could. And it caused, you know, huge delays trying to get away from the coast.
But of course, you find people who just say, eh, we've dealt with this before. You know, we live here for a reason. And one of those reasons is it's beautiful. But sort of the bad side of that is we have to deal with hurricane warnings and real hurricanes actually threatening our livelihood sometimes. So you know, some people are taking it seriously. Others are, you know, just hunkering down and, you know, just hoping for the best, I guess.
INSKEEP: OK. Bobby, I know you're going to be following the storm up the coast later today, so good luck to you. Be well.
ALLYN: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Bobby Allyn, currently in Savannah, Ga.
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INSKEEP: We have news that a federal program meant to reward public service does not.
KING: Right. This is an effort by Congress to forgive some student loans. And in theory, this program helps people who go into public service jobs. But NPR has learned that debt forgiveness plan is pretty unforgiving. A government watchdog found that 99% of requests have been denied.
INSKEEP: Wow. NPR's Cory Turner is breaking this story. Cory, good morning.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the program? I imagine most people haven't heard of it.
TURNER: Yeah. So it's called Public Service Loan Forgiveness - PSLF. Congress created it in 2007. And it seemed, at the time, pretty simple. You work as a nurse, a firefighter, a teacher - the list is long - while paying down your federal student loans. And after 10 years, the promise was the Ed Department would forgive whatever's left. Matthew and Heather Austin, who are both teachers, they built their future around this promise.
MATTHEW AUSTIN: I remember sitting there when we found out that Heather was pregnant with our first child and saying, OK, well, when he's 10, we can take a vacation.
INSKEEP: Oh - because 10 years out, their student loans - whatever is left - would be forgiven.
TURNER: Exactly. But what you hear - what I hear covering this program is that, as simple as it seems, it's not at all. And in the early years especially, the Ed Department and loan companies, they really did a terrible job of managing it. So last year on this show, I reported that the original PSLF program was rejecting 99% of applications.
TURNER: And the Austins are really a great example of this. So after waiting 10 years, they were told that they somehow had 10 more years.
TURNER: Yeah. So Matthew says they had apparently been put on a payment plan that disqualified them.
AUSTIN: I'm trying not to swear. I mean, I really - this is the angriest I've been in my adult life.
TURNER: So this brings us up to last year, which is when Congress decided, OK, we're stepping in. They set aside a $700 million pot of money and relaxed some of these really rigid requirements.
INSKEEP: OK. New rules, more money - did more than 1% of people qualify then?
TURNER: Not exactly.
TURNER: So truly, in the past year, we've seen tens of thousands of these frustrated borrowers apply for this fix. But NPR obtained an audit of this first year. It was done by the Government Accountability Office. It's coming out later today. And GAO says, just like the original, 99% of applications for this expansion are also being denied.
INSKEEP: I have to ask, Cory Turner, because, of course, there are divided opinions about college...
INSKEEP: ...Free college, not everybody thinks it's a great idea. Debt forgiveness, a lot of people think that's wrong. You should pay your debts, they say. So that does raise the question, is this an ideological issue - people in the government who just don't want to be forgiving debt?
TURNER: So the short answer to that question, Steve, is the problems with PSLF really span three different administrations. As I said, the management of it at the very beginning was really terrible. That said, the problem with this expansion and the administration of it, it belongs solely to the Trump administration. So the GAO found there is a reason why most of these folks are getting hung up - about 71% - because of a technicality. Borrowers who know they don't qualify for PSLF, they still have to apply for it so that they can be rejected...
TURNER: ...Before they can apply for the fix.
INSKEEP: OK. Fine.
TURNER: Yeah. So - and that is exactly what happened to Matthew and Heather Austin.
AUSTIN: What sort of Kafkaesque thing are we in here? - where I apply for one thing, I'm told I'm denied for this. And if I'm denied for this, I should apply for another thing. And then when I get to the second thing, I'm told that I haven't been denied for the first thing. I mean, I really - I mean, I'm just cross-eyed reading these things.
TURNER: Now, Steve, for its part, the Ed Department tells me it agrees with the GAO's recommendations about how to improve the program and that a number of those efforts are already underway.
INSKEEP: OK. So they'll try again. Cory, thanks so much.
TURNER: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Cory Turner.
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INSKEEP: Today Vice President Pence is meeting Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the U.K., who may well need a friend.
KING: Yeah, Johnson has had a really terrible week. He lost three major votes. So first, lawmakers voted to take Parliament's agenda out of his hands. And then they voted to prevent Johnson from leaving the European Union without a replacement deal. And then they rejected his demand for a snap election. So now Johnson is getting a little support from the U.S. vice president. President Trump has also praised Johnson, and he's talked vaguely about a trade deal between the U.S. and Britain.
INSKEEP: But can the Trump administration actually help its British ally? NPR's Mara Liasson is following this story. Mara, good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Do Boris Johnson's politics particularly resemble President Trump's?
LIASSON: Yes, they do. Boris Johnson has been described as the British Trump. Trump really likes him. He's one of his favorite foreign leaders. He's gone so far as to denigrate Johnson's predecessor. But now Johnson's big project, Brexit, is in trouble, and that's almost a metaphor for Donald Trump, who hasn't been able to build his wall with Mexico and make a trade deal with China or stop North Koreans from firing missiles over at Japan.
But the biggest difference between them is that Boris Johnson has been hobbled right out of the gate by a revolt from his own Conservatives, and that is something that has never happened to President Trump.
INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. The Republican Party has stayed solidly behind President Trump all the way.
But you talked about things the president has promised and not been able to deliver. One thing he keeps saying is that if Britain goes out of the European Union, no problem; the U.S. will have a quick trade deal with Britain.
LIASSON: Well, that's true. He's talked about that. And on this trip, Vice President Pence also talked about a trade deal with the U.K. as soon as it leaves the EU. But as we are seeing, that might take a very long time. And the president doesn't have a great record of making these trade deals. The one he did make, an updated version of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada deal, still hasn't been ratified by Congress.
INSKEEP: Now, Vice President Pence, before going to London, stopped in Ireland. Don't people on that island have a very different view of Brexit than Boris Johnson does?
LIASSON: Absolutely. Ireland wants to stay in the EU. There are a lot of questions about how Britain's exit will affect the border between the two countries. That's another complicating factor...
LIASSON: ...That the U.S. really can't do much about.
INSKEEP: Now, there's one other thing that I have to ask about, Mara, because we're talking about the vice president in Ireland. How did Vice President Pence end up staying - of all the hotels in Ireland, how did he end up answering questions about where he stayed in Ireland?
LIASSON: Right. Well, Vice President Pence chose to stay at one of Donald Trump's golf resorts, which happened to be 180 miles away from where he was meeting with the Irish prime minister. He, of course, flew. But it still took a long time.
Vice President Pence's chief of staff was asked why they were staying so far away. He said they were staying at the resort at Trump's suggestion. The White House didn't like that explanation. And then the vice president's office had to walk it back and say that it was not at Trump's direction; it was their idea to stay at Trump's property.
Pence is just the latest government official who steered a lot of taxpayer money to one of Donald Trump's properties. Unlike other presidents, Trump never divested from his businesses, and he continues to make money from them. Critics say he is just using the presidency to enrich himself. And so far, Republicans in Congress, who wouldn't like this if a Democratic president did it, seem to be just fine with it.
INSKEEP: And Pence ended up offering an explanation that he had ancestors from that particular town in Ireland, I suppose.
LIASSON: Yes, yes.
INSKEEP: Mara, thanks so much for the update.
LIASSON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.
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