Start Your Day Here: California Wildfire, Ida Recovery And Afghanistan Without U.S. Troops

Published August 31, 2021 at 7:22 AM EDT
Flames are seen behind a building with an American flag in South Lake Tahoe on Monday.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
The Caldor fire pushes into South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Monday.

Good morning,

Here are the top stories we're watching today:

Next for Afghanistan: U.S. troops are out — now what? The State Department says it's trying to keep in touch with Americans who haven't made it out, and the U.S. diplomatic mission has fundamentally changed. Here's more on the next steps.

Ida aftermath: Among the Louisiana houses destroyed by the powerful storm was one that Louis Armstrong considered his second home. Read more about the history of the Karnofsky shop.

California wildfire: Residents of South Lake Tahoe are fleeing a fast-approaching fire and people in neighboring Nevada are on alert.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, the Education Department is taking action as promised to investigate state bans on mask mandates.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Nell Clark, Dana Farrington, Rachel Treisman and Manuela Lopez Restrepo)


Afghan Women's Rights Activist Is Staying Put And Still Fearless After U.S. Withdrawal

Posted August 31, 2021 at 11:40 AM EDT

Mahbooba Seraj, founder of the Afghan Women's Network, decided that she was going to stay in Afghanistan despite the Taliban taking control.

The Taliban were notorious for their abuse and denial of basic rights to women when they were previously in control of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

The last American military plane has now left the country. Seraj tells Morning Edition her reaction to the end of the U.S. presence wasn’t fear.

“I was actually relieved,” she says. The “confusion” and “games” are over, she says. “It’s done now. We are on our own.”

And she’s not going to go into hiding. She knows there will come a day when she’s face-to-face with members of the Taliban. This type of confidence is what “made me who I am and made the Afghan women who they are. And being fearful, fearful of something that I don't know: It doesn't make any sense,” she says.

The Taliban have publicly pledged to let women continue to work and girls will be able to attend school, within the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law. It’s unclear how much those pledges will be carried out.

Seraj says if the Taliban thinks it can relegate women to secondary status like 20 years ago, it would be the “epitome of stupidity” to “cripple half of a country's population.”

Listen to the conversation here.


The Pandemic Is On 3 Broadway Veterans' Minds As Shows Are Set To Reopen

Posted August 31, 2021 at 11:01 AM EDT
A dark street with a theatre on it showing advertisements for the show Hamilton.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images
The closed Richard Rogers Theater in the theater district near Time Square on October 12, 2020 in New York City.

In March 2020, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Broadway turned off the lights, packed away the costumes, and sent everyone home. Now, performers and crew are beginning to come back to prepare for audience's returns mid-September — but reopening during the pandemic means new changes.

The industry is tentatively shaking off the dust and preparing to restart performances in September, but after a year and a half, it would be impossible for artists and crew to return to the same Broadway they knew before the pandemic.

Krystal Joy Brown, Christel Murdock and Riza Takahashi are Broadway professionals navigating the industry's return. They took NPR alongas they navigate the reopenings.

Auditioning for shows used to happen in small rooms, brimming with people and excitement, but the pandemic meant Riza Takahashi had to get use to singing for her computer screen.

She went on so many virtual auditions, when the time came for her to go on her first in-person audition since March 2020, she wasn't sure she remembered what auditioning with other people felt like.

"I was in Mean Girls, but now, unfortunately, it's closed. So I'm starting from new again, where I'm auditioning and just had an in-person audition," Takahashi says.

"I didn't know what to expect going into this audition. Are we wearing masks? No masks? Those — all those kind of questions — so I guess everybody's kind of trying to figure out what's the new norm when it comes to auditioning."
Riza Takahashi

Christel Murdoch is used to quick costume changes backstage, where costumers become a haze of skillful hands and bite lights as they dress performers in seconds flat.

Preparing to return Aladdin to Broadway in late September, Murdoch is wondering how COVID-19 precautions will blend into her work.

"We have 337 costumes. We have lots of costume changes — 108 of those changes take place in less than one minute. How is it going to work backstage with dressers with bite lights in their mouth? Dressers bite on a light so that they can see what they're doing in the dark and then they drop it. It's, like, on a lanyard around their neck. Like, how is all that going to work?"
Christel Murdoch

Returning to Broadway after a year and a half without performances doesn't just mean logistical and public heath questions, it's also an emotional return for the artists.

Krystal Joy Brown is rehearsing to take back on the role of Eliza in Hamilton. The show's reopening hasn't always been in view. When many shows closed in March 2020, it was expected to only be a short hiatus, and Broadway's reopening date had to be pushed back as virus levels heightened. Now, after months of decline, coronavirus cases across the country are surging again, despite widespread vaccine access throughout the country.

"I just had this really weird moment. All the news today — masks are coming back. We need to wear masks again. And I don't know. It got me really emotional today. I just don't feel safe anymore. And it's just like, how are we going to do this? I just, like, started crying, you know?"
Krystal Joy Brown

This story is part of Morning Edition series following Broadway artists as the industry reopens. Listen to the first story in full here.


Your COVID-19 Vaccine Immunity May Last Longer Than You Think

Posted August 31, 2021 at 10:40 AM EDT

With booster shots on the way in the U.S., and reports from around the world suggesting immunity to SARS-CoV-2 wanes after vaccination, you may be concerned that those shots you had a few months ago no longer offer enough protection.

Before you hit the panic button, read this story from NPR science correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff. She talked to experts who say that six months post-vaccine, your body is more prepared to fight off the coronavirus than you might think.

It's true that six months out, the antibodies in the blood have fallen, as expected — which is why we're seeing more symptomatic infections. But vaccinated people who do get infected are likely to be less sick than they would otherwise, since the body has essentially been training for months.

Here's more from Will Stone about why antibody tests shouldn't be your go-tofor checking COVID-19 immunity anyway.


After 20 Years, The U.S. Is Out Of Afghanistan. What Happens Now?

Posted August 31, 2021 at 10:17 AM EDT
Men stand next to an overturned vehicle on an airport tarmac, with drees and a building in the distance.
David Fox/AFP via Getty Images
Taliban fighters stand next to an overturned vehicle following an accident at the airport in Kabul on Tuesday.

The U.S. has ended its military mission in Afghanistan after two decades and an especially chaotic final month. Read more about the last moments here.

As national security correspondent Greg Myre points out, on Aug. 1 the Taliban didn't control any Afghan cities. By Aug. 15 they had the capital and the U.S. had started its airlift, and by the final day of the month, the U.S. is gone and the Taliban have full control.

There are still a few hundred Americans in Afghanistan, as well as scores of Afghans who helped the U.S. and now fear Taliban retribution. Plus, questions remain about how the Taliban government will actually operate and the best way for the U.S. to monitor threats and provide humanitarian support.

Myre and international affairs Jackie Northam — who is in Islamabad — spoke with Morning Edition's Noel King about what might happen next. Listen to their discussion and read excerpts below.

What will happen to the Americans and Afghans left behind? U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the State Department is trying to keep in touch with Americans, many of whom just couldn't make it to the airport in Kabul. Helping stranded Afghans will be a considerable challenge, Northam says, because the only way out is by air or by land. The Taliban have given assurances they'll allow people to leave with the right paperwork, but Northam is skeptical.

What's happening at the Kabul airport? There's no movement there today, though the Taliban say they will reopen it and there have been some discussions with Turkey and Qatar about helping secure charter flights. Northam points out there's more to operating an airport than simply securing the perimeter; for example, there are no resources for air traffic control. The airport is important not just for getting people out, but for getting humanitarian aid and emergency supplies in — some of those are starting to arrive in other cities, but not Kabul.

What is the new reality for U.S. military and intelligence? The military stresses it has "over the horizon" capabilities, like the drone strikes we saw against ISIS-K in recent days, but Myre doesn't think we'll see much more of that since the U.S. wants to be out militarily. The CIA will still need to keep tabs on Afghanistan on a daily basis, but it will harder to do that from a distance and without the Afghans who previously helped.

How has the U.S. diplomatic mission changed? The U.S. Embassy has moved its operations from Kabul to Qatar. Myre says the U.S. will probably maintain some regular contact with the Taliban and will be deeply involved in deciding whether the international community recognizes the group. The U.S. also has to figure out what kind of humanitarian assistance to deliver to Afghanistan, and not directly through the Taliban.

What are the Taliban's plans for governing? There have been many meetings but no formal announcement. As Northam puts it, "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 in the operation and whether it will be an inclusive government and, most importantly, how the Taliban will run the country." Whether the hardline or relatively moderate faction rules, Northam says they will face challenges including poverty, drought and the coronavirus pandemic.


An All-Black Unit That Fought Both Germany And Racism In WWI Now Has A Congressional Gold Medal

Posted August 31, 2021 at 9:47 AM EDT
Members of New York's famous 369th Infantry Regiment wave as they come back home from France.
National Archives
Members of New York's famous 369th Infantry Regiment wave as they come back home from France.

They helped their country fight for freedom, although they were denied it at home and served in a segregated Army unit. But the Black men of the 369th Infantry Regiment, widely known as the Harlem Hellfighters, fought with valor and skill — and their accomplishment has now been recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal.

Their reputation on the battlefield

"We did not give ourselves our name [the 'Harlem Hellfighters']," Col. Reginald Sanders, a former commander of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, which descended from the World War I unit, told NPR in 2014. "Our enemies gave us our name, [which] is an honor."

The Germans called them Hollenkampfer, sparking the nickname that became official earlier this year.

“They are devils,” a captured Prussian officer said, according to a U.S. Army report. “They smile while they kill and they won’t be taken alive.”

The Black Americans racked up a series of legendary accomplishments. They saw 191 days of combat — the most of any similarly sized U.S. military unit. They fought hard and moved quickly, becoming the first allied unit to reach the Rhine River.

How they fought, and were celebrated, despite racism

Hellfighters fought with distinction not alongside their fellow Americans but with the French army, “because many white American soldiers refused to go into combat alongside Black Americans,” according to a news release from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office.

When the Hellfighters left New York, they had been barred from participating in a military parade. When they returned, their white commander, Col. William Hayward, helped arrange a welcoming parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Both chambers of Congress approved the commendation this summer, in a bipartisan effort that drew dozens of co-sponsors.

Tokyo Paralympics

These Afghan Athletes Finally Made It From Kabul To The Paralympics

Posted August 31, 2021 at 9:29 AM EDT
A man wearing a jersey that says "Afghanistan" and a name sign with "Rasouli" waves while standing in a stadium.
Carl Court/Getty Images
Getty Images AsiaPac
Hossain Rasouli of Team Afghanistan waves after competing in the Men's Long Jump-T47 Final on Tuesday at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

While it initially looked like they would not be able to participate, Afghanistan's two Paralympic athletes have arrived in Tokyo and plan to compete in events this week.

Organizers had said Afghanistan's Paralympic team — represented by Taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi and track athlete Hossain Rasouli — wouldn't be able to attend the Games because of the ongoing turmoil and lack of commercial flights in their home country.

Khudadadi, who had arrived in Kabul to fly to Tokyo when the Taliban took over, released a video message shortly after that announcement pleading for help getting to the Paralympics.

"I request from you all — that I am an Afghan woman. And as a representative of Afghan women, I ask you to help me,” Khudadadi said, according to a translation from Reuters. “My intention is to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Please hold my hand and help me.”

The international community did just that, according to a statement from Paralympic organizers. Thanks to support from "several individuals, organizations and governments," Khudadadi and Rasouli were evacuated from Kabul to Paris.

The two spent a week resting and training in Paris, and following requisite COVID-19 precautions before arriving in Tokyo on Saturday.

“Twelve days ago we were informed that the Afghan Paralympic Team could not travel to Tokyo, a move that broke the hearts of all involved in the Paralympic Movement and left both athletes devastated," Andrew Parsons, International Paralympic Committee president, said in a statement. "That announcement kickstarted a major global operation that led to their safe evacuation from Afghanistan, their recuperation by France, and now their safe arrival in Tokyo."

Parsons added that "we always knew there was a remote chance both athletes could participate at Tokyo 2020," saying that was why the Afghan flag was included in the opening ceremony's parade of athletes even though Khudadadi and Hossain were not present then.

Khudadadi will become Afghanistan's first female athlete to compete at the Paralympic Games since 2004 when she competes on Thursday in the women's K44-49kg weight category in taekwondo.

And Hossain, a sprinter, arrived too late for his typical event but participated in the long jump in the T47 class today.


U.S. Open Kicks Off With Naomi Osaka's Fresh Start

Posted August 31, 2021 at 9:16 AM EDT

The U.S. Open is underway with plenty of fans and without a few key players.

Lines were massive for ticket holders, who were required to provide proof they had been vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, N.Y. Fans were barred from the tournament last year because of the pandemic.

But former champions Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are not playing this year because of injuries. (Sporting News has a list of the top absences.)

One celebrity who is back and in the spotlight: Naomi Osaka. She was off to a good start yesterday following a public pledge to “try to celebrate myself and my accomplishments more, I think we all should.”

Naomi Osaka celebrates during Day 1 of the U.S. Open in Queens, N.Y.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Naomi Osaka celebrates against Marie Bouzkova during their Women's Singles first-round match on Day 1 of the 2021 U.S. Open on Monday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y.

Former U.S. Open champion Andy Murray was off to a rockier start, losing to No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and blasting Tsitsipas’ extended bathroom breaks during the match.

“It's just disappointing because I feel it influenced the outcome of the match,” Murray said. “I think he's great for the game. But I have zero time for that stuff at all, and I lost respect for him.”

Find the Day 2 schedule here.

Tokyo Paralympics

Where Things Stand A Week Into The Tokyo Paralympics, Which End Sunday

Posted August 31, 2021 at 9:00 AM EDT
A man wearing an athletic shirt with "Snyder USA" on it holds a banner reading Tokyo 2020, standing on a blue background that also says Tokyo.
Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Getty Images AsiaPac
Brad Snyder and guide Greg Billington of Team United States react as they cross the finish line to win the gold medal during the men's PTVI Triathlon on day 4 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Odaiba Marine Park on Saturday.

It's been exactly a week since the official start of the Tokyo Paralympics. A lot has happened, and many sports still have medal events coming up ahead of the closing ceremony on Sunday. Here's the full calendar.

So far, China is leading with the most gold and overall medals, followed by Great Britain, the Russian Paralympic Committee, the U.S. and Ukraine.

Among the many standout moments of Week One, we saw:

Epic comebacks. From Team USA, women’s wheelchair Para triathlete Kendall Gretsch claimed her gold medal after an incredible sprint to the finish line, and Daniel Romanchuck came from behind for a first-place finish in the T54 men’s 400 meter wheelchair final. German sprinter Felix Streng sped up in the final stretch of the men's 100 meter T64 final to take the gold, passing the two-time reigning champion on his way.

Record-breaking debuts. Two 17 year old visually impaired swimmers from Team USA, Anastasia Pagonis and Gia Pergolini, each won gold and set world records in their first Paralympic events. American sprinter and first-time Paralympian Nick Mayhugh became the first athlete in his classification to break 11 seconds in the 100 meter, and did it twice in one day. Also notable: Women have won 65% of Team USA's medals so far.

Medalists repeating. Oksana Masters of the U.S. arrived with eight medals across three sports, and won the women's trial H4-5 to claim her first medal (a gold) in #4: cycling. That makes her the fourth U.S. woman to win gold at both summer and winter Games. Kendall Gretsch became the third a few days earlier when she added triathlon gold to her 2018 biathlon and cross-country skiing victories. And American swimmer Jessica Long captured her 25th Paralympic medal after winning her signature event, the 200-meter individual medley SM8, for the fourth consecutive time. Brad Snyder, who pivoted from swimming in 2018, cinched his first para triathlon gold (it's his sixth gold medal and eighth overall). Cuban "Queen of Sprint" Omara Durand — an 11-time World Champion — retained her first-place title in the 400m T12 final, and looks to do the same in the 100m and 200m coming up.

Historic victories. Dressage rider Roxanne Trunnell won gold in the individual test Grade I. Hers is the first U.S. Paralympic equestrian medal since 2004, and the first such gold since 1996. Australia also ended its 37-year drought in Paralympic table tennis this weekend, when Lina Lei and Qian Yang won their respective women's singles finals.

Fire Season

Starting Tonight, Every National Forest In California Will Be Closed Because Of Wildfires

Posted August 31, 2021 at 8:40 AM EDT
Orange smoke clouds are seen above a forest,
JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images
A long exposure photograph shows fire and smoke from the Caldor fire near Tragedy Springs, California on August 29, 2021.

The U.S. Forest Service is closing every national forest in California, citing the extraordinary risk of wildfires and forecasts that show the threat will only remain high or even get worse. The closures start Tuesday night and run through Sept. 17.

More than 6,800 wildfires have already burned 1.7 million acres of national forest land across in California, the Forest Service said, posing a dire threat to people, wildlife and property.

The closures could help in at least two ways: by reducing the number of people in harm’s way, and by removing a potential source of ignition for new wildfires.

“We do not take this decision lightly but this is the best choice for public safety,” said Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien. “It is especially hard with the approaching Labor Day weekend, when so many people enjoy our national forests."

The U.S. Forest Service says the current situation is both unique and worrying:

“Although the potential for large fires and risk to life and property is not new, what is different is that we are facing: (a) record level fuel and fire conditions; (b) fire behavior that is beyond the norm of our experience and models such as large, quick runs in the night; (c) significantly limited initial attack resources, suppression resources, and Incident Command Teams to combat new fire starts and new large fires; and (d) no predicted weather relief for an extended period of time into the late fall.”

The closure does not apply to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the majority of which is Nevada.

Ida's Aftermath

Among The Houses That Ida Took Was Louis Armstrong's Second Home, The Karnofsky Shop

Posted August 31, 2021 at 8:30 AM EDT

Another piece of New Orleans's rich jazz history has crumbled to the ground.

The building where musical great Louis Armstrong spent much of his childhood is no longer standing after Hurricane Ida battered the city. 427 South Rampart Street was called the Karnofsky Shop, after the family who lived there.

The 1910s-era building was in disarray before the storm and crumbled into rubble as Ida pummeled southern Louisiana, killing at least two people. The store was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its outsized impact on Armstrong's musical life.

The building's influence on jazz history is tied to the Jewish family who lived there and encouraged a young Armstrong to get into music. NPR's Andrew Limbong has the story onMorning Edition.

The building was owned by the Karnofsky family, who hired Armstrong when he was 7 years old to help in their junk and coal business. By day, Armstrong would help collect junk, and by night he'd deliver coal to prostitutes around New Orleans. In between work hours, Armstrong ate dinner with the family and later recalled how formulate their connection was for him.

The Karnofsky family encouraged him to pursue music, told him he was talented, and would sing Russian lullabies with him.

Morris Karnofsky was a childhood friend of Armstrong, and one day, the two saw a tarnished B Flat cornet in a pawn shop window. Morris advanced him some money to help buy the little cornet — Armstrong's first — and after they cleaned it up, Morris requested a song.

"Although I could not play a good tune, Morris applauded me just the same, which made me feel very good," Armstrong recalled in 1969.

While Armstrong found warmth and comfort from the family — he also saw through them how Jews were discriminated against in America.

"When I reached the age of Eleven I began to realize that it was the Jewish family who instilled in me Singing from the heart. They encourage me to carry on," Armstrong wrote around the same time.

Although the Karnofsky Shop didn't last, the friendship between Armstrong and the family did.

Morris Karnofsky went on to open Morris Music, the first jazz record store in New Orleans, and when he was in town, Armstrong would stop by and see his childhood friend.


A Major Louisiana Port Was Badly Hit By Ida, But The Full Impact Isn't Clear Yet

Posted August 31, 2021 at 8:14 AM EDT

Lafourche Parish, La., where Hurricane Ida made landfall, is home to one of the biggest ports in the Gulf of Mexico, Port Fourchon. Over 90% of the Gulf of Mexico’s deepwater oil production goes through the port.

Chett Chiasson, executive director of Port Fourchon, describes the damage as extensive and far-reaching.

It’s not just oil production that’s been hit — there's no electricity or running water in the area, either.

“No power, no water, but we have equipment, we have a will to get things back up and running and we’ll do that as best we can,” Chiasson told NPR’s Morning Edition.

The first order of business, he said, is clearing the road to the port to get cleanup crews the access they need.

But even without a full assessment of the damage, Chiasson said the disruption will “absolutely” affect gas prices.

“The prices are going to go up because day-to-day we service about 16 to 20% of the nation’s entire oil supply,” he said. “So as we move forward, every day that that production does not get back up and running, is every day our supply is limited.”

As for how long recovery might take, Chiasson said they should know more in a couple days. For now, his answer is: “It’ll take weeks to get things back up and running. How many weeks is a good question, but we just don’t know that.”


The Fraud Trial Of Ex-Silicon Valley Star Elizabeth Holmes Starts Today. Get Caught Up

Posted August 31, 2021 at 7:57 AM EDT
A woman with curly blond hair and a gray suit sits in a wood-paneled room; she is in focus but the people sitting directly around her are blurry.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes seen at a status hearing at the Robert F. Peckham U.S. Federal Court in June 2019 in San Jose, Calif.

Jury selection starts today in the highly anticipated criminal fraud trial of Elizabeth Holmes.

Holmes and Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani — her former business partner and ex-boyfriend — claimed their blood-testing company Theranos would revolutionize laboratory medicine.

Now they stand accused of defrauding investors and patients in what NPR business reporter Bobby Allyn calls "one of the most spectacular Silicon Valley scandals in recent history."

Allyn has been all over this story, and was the first to report on recently unsealed court documents that indicate Holmes is likely to take the witness stand and accuse Balwani of manipulating and abusing her to the extent that it affected her state of mind during the time of the alleged fraud.

He lays out everything you need to know going into today's proceedings. Here are some quick takeaways:

  • Opening arguments are slated to begin on Sept. 8 in San Jose, Calif., with the trial expected to last four months.
  • Balwani will be tried separately next year. Both he and Holmes have pleaded not guilty, and would face a prison sentence of up to 20 years if convicted.
  • Patients who were wrongly diagnosed by Theranos are set to testify against Holmes. Investors who lost millions (an estimated $700 million, in total) are also seeking justice.
  • Holmes' legal team is expected to argue that she may have exaggerated her company's achievements, but never intended to mislead patients and investors.
  • Theranos made prosecutors' job harder by destroying a large database containing years' worth of blood-sample lab reports. Holmes maintains that evidence could have proven her innocence, though Allyn notes it could also have been "damning."
  • Holmes has since married the heir to a California hotel chain, Billy Evans, and recently gave birth. The judge has said there will be arrangements allowing her to care for her baby boy in the courthouse.


In London, Thousands Of Red Hearts Honor COVID-19 Victims In Plain View Of Parliament

Posted August 31, 2021 at 7:27 AM EDT

LONDON — Government-sanctioned memorials to the victims of COVID-19 may be years away, but in Europe, some people are making their own. One of the most striking memorials so far is in London where volunteers have painted more than 150,000 red hearts on a wall along the south bank of the River Thames. People stop to write the names of lost loved ones inside the hearts along with messages as a way to remember and make sense of huge loss of life in the United Kingdom.

Fran Hall paints hearts on a memorial for people who have died from COVID-19 in London.
Frank Langfitt/NPR
Fran Hall paints hearts on a memorial in London dedicated to people who have died from COVID-19. She and other activists are pushing for the British government to investigate its handling of the pandemic.

“We were hearing the numbers were going up 40,000, 50,000, 60,000, and it lost meaning,” says Fran Hall, who was touching up hearts with a paint-brush one day last month. Hall, who volunteers with the group behind the unofficial memorial — Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK — lost her husband, Steve Mead, to COVID three weeks after they were married.

The group, which began painting the hearts in March of this year, chose a wall across from the British Parliament and is pressuring the government to start an inquiry into its mishandling of the pandemic.

“It’s a political location,” says Hall. “The decision-makers can't miss this.”

Many criticized British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for moving too slowly to address the pandemic when it emerged in the early months of 2020. Since then, the country’s National Health Service has received high marks for fully vaccinating three-quarters of the country’s adults.

Johnson announced earlier this year that an inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic will begin in spring 2022. The prime minister said he did not want to begin an inquiry until the government was certain the worst of the pandemic has passed.

NPR London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this report.


The Scene From South Lake Tahoe, Where Thousands Are Fleeing From A Massive Wildfire

Posted August 31, 2021 at 7:21 AM EDT
The lane of a road is filled with cars going in one direction, and empty in the other.  There are pine trees lining the road, partially obscured by haze in the yellow sky.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
Residents evacuate as the Caldor Fire approaches in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Monday.

The out-of-control Caldor Fire is racing toward South Lake Tahoe, putting the entire town of 21,000 people under a mandatory evacuation order and prompting evacuation warnings over the border in Nevada.

The California resort city is normally bustling with thousands of tourists, but emptied out yesterday as the massive wildfire expanded rapidly into the Tahoe Basin. That process has been marked by stress and uncertainty, as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from South Lake Tahoe.

He explains that to evacuate, people must get out from the high-altitude Lake Tahoe basin, then down one of just two windy, mountain highways that plunge into the Nevada desert — after spending considerable time in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Plus, shelters filled to capacity very quickly, leaving many evacuees stranded and confused about where to go.

"And then the traffic was all backed up, because people are coming down so fast they don't know where they're going and they don't know where they're staying 'cause everything's booked up," says Jeannie Pearson.

It took Pearson and her elderly mom an hour to travel a few miles through town and across the state line to safety. She left behind her home as well as a house she rents to local college kids.

Pearson worries that if that house burns, there will be basically nowhere for those students to go — after all, she notes, "there's literally a housing crisis" and few available options in the area already.

As Siegler puts it, Tahoe has had a difficult run lately.

"Newcomers from cities have inundated the resort area during the pandemic," he says. "Then a punishing drought. And now, weeks of dense smoke and hazardous air, which drove the tourists and their spending money away."

Read the latest on the Caldor Fire, and listen to Siegler's on-the-ground reporting here.

PLUS: To stop extreme wildfires, California is taking a page out of the playbook of a state that may surprise you: Florida. It actually leads the nation in controlled burns. Here's how that works and what it means for the wildfire-stricken West.