Start your day here: A crucial Biden-Putin video call; torrential rains in Hawaii; a diplomatic Olympics boycott angers Beijing

Published December 7, 2021 at 8:05 AM EST
People watch storm clouds as it begins to rain in Honolulu on Monday. A strong storm packing high winds and extremely heavy rain flooded roads and downed power lines across Hawaii, with officials warning Monday of potentially worse conditions ahead.
Caleb Jones/AP
People watch storm clouds as it begins to rain in Honolulu on Monday. A strong storm packing high winds and extremely heavy rain flooded roads and downed power lines across Hawaii, with officials warning Monday of potentially worse conditions ahead.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

Hawaii flooding: A "kona low" struck the Big Island, Maui and Molokaʻi on Sunday and hasn't stopped since. Hawaii's climate office says climate change is making storms like these more dangerous.

President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin: Biden is expected to warn his counterpart against invading Ukraine. Thousands of Russian troops have recently moved within striking distance of Ukraine's borders.

Beijing Olympics: The U.S. diplomatic boycott of the winter games over human rights abuses has angered Chinese authorities and cheered Uyghur rights groups, but some skeptics doubt it will have a tangible effect.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, the U.S. Department of Justice is suing Texas over the state's redistricting plans.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)

Mental health

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issues a warning about youth and mental health

Posted December 7, 2021 at 11:29 AM EST
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy gives a sticker to children in an observation room of a pediatric COVID-19 vaccination clinic at an elementary school in Northern Virginia in November.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy gives a sticker to children in an observation room of a pediatric COVID-19 vaccination clinic at an elementary school in Northern Virginia in November.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has a warning about the mental health of young people.

Murthy told Morning Edition that children and young adults were already facing a mental health crisis before the pandemic began. One in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40% increase from 2009 to 2019, he said. Suicide rates went up during that time by 57% among youth ages 10 to 24.

The pandemic has only made the issues behind it worse, he said.

"This is a critical issue that we have to do something about now," he said. "We can't wait until after the pandemic is over."

Murthy, who issued an advisory called “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” also cites gun violence, the specter of climate change, racism and social conflict as sources of stress.

“We also have to recognize that kids increasingly are experiencing bullying, not just in school but online, that they're growing up in a popular culture and a media culture that reminds kids often that they aren't good-looking enough, thin enough, popular enough, rich enough, frankly, just not enough," he said.

"Even to this day, even though I have parents who I know unconditionally loved me, I never felt comfortable telling them about it because I thought ... that this was my fault. I don't want that to be the reality for my children, who are 4 and 5 and growing up, you know, in this very complicated world."

Listen to the conversation, or read more for Murthy's own struggles with loneliness and anxiety as a child. The interview has been lightly edited.

On how technology companies need to design platforms that strengthen youth mental health:

They've got to be transparent with data on the harms and benefits so that we can understand which children, in particular, are most at risk. But most importantly, we need them in the long term and short term to design platforms that strengthen youth mental health. The current business model of most platforms is built on how they maximize time spent, not time well spent, but time spent. And we need these platforms to be designed to strengthen the mental health of our kids to make them better. And right now, we're conducting this national experiment on our kids with social media. And it's worrisome to me as a parent.

On the importance of combatting stigma:

As much as technology has an important role here, what we are calling for in this advisory are much broader changes as well. We're asking for individuals to take action to change how we think and talk about mental health so people with mental health struggles know that they have nothing to be ashamed of and it’s okay to ask for help. That stigma is so powerful still around mental health, something I experienced as a young person who struggled with mental health. I didn't know that I could ask for help and I was ashamed. But we're also calling for expanded access to mental health care for increases in mental health counselors in schools and investments in social-emotional learning curricula in schools, as well as, finally, for people to invest in relationships in their life.

On his struggles with loneliness, isolation, and anxiety as a child

As a young child, I was very shy and had a difficult time making friends, and I struggled a lot with loneliness and a sense of isolation with anxiety. Certainly, when it came time to go to school, I wasn’t nervous about tests, I was nervous about feeling isolated and alone. Unfortunately, I had to also deal with a lot of bullying as many kids did and still do when I was in middle school. But with all of that, I felt this same sense of shame, like it was somehow my fault. Even to this day, even though I have parents who I know unconditionally loved me, I never felt comfortable telling them about it because I thought, you know, that this was my fault, that I did something wrong and I didn't know where to go for help, Steve. And I don't want that to be the reality for my children, who are 4 and 5, and growing up in this very complicated world.


Every Michigan driver will get $400 for each vehicle they own, the state says

Posted December 7, 2021 at 10:35 AM EST
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks onstage at a podium, in front of a screen with the flags of various countries displayed in a row at the bottom.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the start of the 2021 Motor Bella auto show on September 21, 2021 in Pontiac, Michigan.

Michigan’s attempts to lower its famously high insurance rates seem to be working: every driver in the state will be refunded $400 for each vehicle they own, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says.

The money comes from a projected $5 billion surplus held by the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, a non-profit that reimburses auto insurers for personal injury medical costs that exceed a threshold — an amount that is currently set at $600,000.

“Michiganders have paid into the catastrophic care fund for decades,” Whitmer said in a statement sent to NPR, “and I am pleased that the MCCA developed this plan so quickly after unanimously approving my request to return surplus funds to the pockets of Michiganders.”

After analyzing its accounts and projected costs, the MCCA said it could return roughly $3 billion of the overall surplus to policyholders while still maintaining care for accident survivors.

The refunds apply to any vehicle covered by an active auto insurance policy as of 11:59 p.m. on October 31, 2021.

Drivers can expect to get their part of the payout in the second quarter of 2022. People who are eligible for the money don’t need to take any action — the state says the MCCA will send the money to insurance companies in early March, and that the funds must be sent to drivers within 60 days.

“These refunds are a major win for all drivers — especially Detroiters — who have paid the highest insurance rates in the nation for decades,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said.

The push to return money to Michigan drivers comes two years after the state’s Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass a no-fault insurance reform bill into law.


Charlottesville's statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee will soon be melted down into public art

Posted December 7, 2021 at 10:20 AM EST
A statue of a general on a horse is removed using chains and red and yellow ropes, against the backdrop of green leafy trees.
John C. Clark/AP
FR171764 AP
Workers remove the monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Charlottesville, Va.

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that once stood in downtown Charlottesville, Va., will be melted down and turned into a public arts project after receiving city council approval this week.

Debate over removing the statute helped ignite the Unite the Right demonstration in August 2017, a deadly neo-Nazi rally where a man drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one person. The statue was finally taken down in July.

As some cities in the South have removed Confederate monuments and symbols, there have been discussions about what to do with the relics.

In Charlottesville, the Jefferson School American Heritage Center, a local Black-led non-profit, will take on the project, which it has named “Swords Into Plowshares.” Creating the art piece will help engage the Charlottesville community in how inclusion can be represented through art and public space, the group says.

“Our hope with ‘Swords into Plowshares’ is to create something that transforms what was once toxic in our public space into something beautiful that can be more reflective of our entire community’s social values,” Andrea Douglas, the center’s executive director, said in a statement.

“We’re giving people opportunities to engage with our own narratives and our own histories. This project offers a road map for other communities to do the same.”

A former hedge fund manager turns over $70 million in stolen antiques and avoids a trial

Posted December 7, 2021 at 10:02 AM EST
Financier and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt attends the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at the Marriott Marquis on Thursday, May 5, 2016, in New York.
Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Financier and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt in 2016. During one exchange with investigators over an antique, Steinhardt said, “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.”

A ceremonial cup from Turkey in the shape of a stag’s head. Three death masks, likely unearthed from the mountains of Israel, dating back to 6000 or 7000 BC. An ancient Greek chest for human remains.

Those are among the 180 stolen antiquities that former hedge fund manager and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt turned over under an agreement with New York City prosecutors. The deal, reached after a multi-year investigation into his activities, also slaps Steinhardt with a lifetime ban on collecting any other historical relics.

In exchange, Steinhardt will avoid prosecution for what authorities have called his “rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts” that crossed legal lines.

“His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection,” Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. said in a statement on Monday.

Steinhardt has denied he committed any crimes in acquiring the antiques and said many of the dealers who sold him items claimed that they were the objects' lawful owners. “Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries,” read a statement from his attorneys provided to NPR.

Authorities say they’ll return the 180 antiques, valued at around $70 million, to their “rightful owners” in the 11 countries where they originated.

Vance said the decision not to prosecute Steinhardt meant that the relics could be returned more quickly and that witnesses and other parallel investigations would remain secret.

The investigation into Steinhardt began in 2017 and revealed that he had purchased some items from known antiquities traffickers without any information about their provenance. At least 100 of the pieces Steinhardt surrendered appeared covered in dirt before he bought them, which authorities said was a sign of looting.

During one exchange with investigators over a subpoena related to a different antique, Steinhardt reportedly pointed to the Larnax — the Greek chest he agreed to forfeit — and said: “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.”


Hundreds of employees were laid off over a Zoom call

Posted December 7, 2021 at 9:45 AM EST

Close to 900 employees at the abruptly found out they were fired during a Zoom call last week. The layoffs affected 9% of the digital mortgage company's workforce and drew widespread condemnation on social media.

Founder and CEO Vishal Garg began the call by warning participants that bad news was coming, according to videos posted online.Only those who were being terminated were invited to the call, which appeared to last less than three minutes and not allow participants to speak.

Garg called the situation "challenging" and cited market forces, performance and productivity as underlying reasons for the firings.

"If you're on this call, you are part of the unlucky group being laid off," Garg said during the call. "Your employment here is terminated effective immediately."

Garg told the call's participants they would be getting an email from the company's human resources department to explain termination benefits. The call ended shortly after.

The mass layoff went viral on social media, where Garg and the company drew swift criticism, including for the announcement's virtual format.

“Having to conduct layoffs is gut wrenching, especially this time of year," Better CFO Kevin Ryan told NPR in a statement. "However a fortress balance sheet and a reduced and focused workforce together set us up to play offense going into a radically evolving homeownership market."

Better, which was founded in 2014, won the top spot in LinkedIn’s Top Startups U.S. list for 2020 and 2021. LinkedIn calls the list a "data-driven ranking of where entrepreneurial-minded professionals want to work today," and reports brought on 5,000 hires in 2021, growing by 112%.

The company announced earlier this year it planned to go public, and received a $750 million cash infusion from its backers at SoftBank last week.

Garg has been criticized in the past for his management style and has been accused by ex-business partners of fraud, allegations which he denies.


China threatens retaliation for U.S. diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics

Posted December 7, 2021 at 9:31 AM EST
Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hongkongers and Taiwanese demonstrators protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in November.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hongkongers and Taiwanese demonstrators protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in November.

Beijing is fuming and human rights groups are cheering over the Biden administration's announcement of a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in February.

The U.S. won't send diplomatic or government officials to the Beijing Games, but will not stop athletes from competing, the White House announced on Monday. White House press secretary Jen Psaki cited the Chinese government's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity" in the Xinjiang region in southwest China, which is home to a large population of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities.

Alleged abuses in the region include torture, mass state-organized incarceration and persecution. The United Nations has said the internment of minorities in camps meets the U.N.'s definition of genocide.

China's angry reaction

China has threatened strong countermeasures but hasn't said what those would entail, says NPR's Emily Feng, who has been tracking the response from the Chinese government.

Zhao Lijian, a firebrand foreign ministry spokesperson, accused the U.S. of "political provocation" and called the boycott an insult to all 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, Feng reports.

Human rights groups applaud the move

The boycott was hailed by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a U.S. organization that promotes the rights of the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang. The group said all governments should shun the "spectacle of 21st-century genocide games."

Another group, the Campaign for Uyghurs, said "the Uyghur genocide has cast a shadow over these games and made it morally untenable for them to occur in standard operation."

NPR's Jonathan Franklin has more on the reaction fromUyghurrights groups.

Questions over the boycott's effectiveness

Michael Mazza, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Morning Edition that to really address China's abuses against Muslim minorities, the U.S. should have started working years ago to get the 2022 Games moved out of China, and could have pursued such action under International Olympic Committee rules.

Mazza said that a diplomatic boycott will not bring enough attention to the problem to make any substantial change in the country.

"Instead of a diplomatic boycott, in which no U.S. officials go at all, the Biden administration should be sending a delegation comprised entirely of U.S. officials concerned with human rights and democracy issues," Mazza said. "That would have presented a way and a great opportunity to be out in front of international media every day talking about these issues, raising global awareness about Chinese human rights abuses."

Listen to his full conversation with NPR's Debbie Elliott.

Water safety

Hawaii orders the Navy to halt fuel tank facility operations because of tainted drinking water

Posted December 7, 2021 at 9:26 AM EST
An inside view of a tunnel at an underground fuel storage facility.
Shannon Haney/AP
A tunnel pictured inside the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 2018.

Hawaii has ordered the U.S. Navy to halt operations and empty its underground storage tanks at a World War II-era fuel facility after a petroleum leak was found to have contaminated Honolulu's drinking water supply.

Gov. David Ige announced on Monday that the state's health department issued an order directing the Navy to suspend operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

The facility, which was constructed in the early 1940s, consists of 20 steel-lined tanks mined inside a volcanic ridge near Pearl Harbor and can hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel. The tanks also sit above an aquifer that supplies a quarter of the water consumed in urban Honolulu.

State leaders had spent the last several days calling on the Navy to pause operations after the test results confirmed the contamination of drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam following weeks of public complaints.

"Hawaiʻi’s wellbeing and the safety of our residents, including military families, must come first," Ige tweeted. "We cannot have national security without ensuring public health and safety. There are still important questions that need to be answered and the Order will help get there."

The state's order also requires the Navy to take immediate steps to install a drinking water treatment at the Red Hill Shaft, submit a work plan to assess system integrity and defuel the underground storage tanks within 30 days.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said during a visit to the joint base on Monday that he apologized to everyone affected by the "horrible, horrible tragedy." He told reporters that officials are getting closer to identifying the root of the problem, and will implement new safety precautions before resuming operations — though he said permanently closing the facility is not off the table.

AsStars and Stripesreported, he and several other top officials have spent time talking with residents from the 10 military housing communities near the base, many of whom have criticized the Navy for not taking their initial complaints seriously.

In fact, the joint base commander has since apologized for reassuring residents on social media that their tap water was safe to drink, at the very same time that the state health department was advising residents to avoid using it.

Here's what's happened along the way.

The World War II-era facility has had a particularly difficult year, which included three separate fuel leaks and a $325,000 state fine in October for maintenance and operations violations.

Its most recent troubles began on Nov. 30, when the state health department said it had received "numerous complaints ... of a fuel or gasoline-like odor" from users of the Navy's Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system — which includes military housing and two elementary schools.

The Associated Press reports that nearly 1,000 military households complained about the tap water, and some people said they experienced cramps and vomiting after drinking it.

Officials said they would investigate the complaints, and urged Navy water system users to avoid drinking, cooking with it or using it for oral hygiene.

The health department said the following day that a preliminary analysis had detected petroleum product in water samples from one of the sites where odors were reported. On Dec. 3, it announced it had not received enough results from water sampling to determine "if the tap water is petroleum-free," and asked Navy water users to continue avoiding it.

That same Friday, the Navy said it had detected petroleum products in the Red Hill well, which had been "isolated" since Sunday. Officials said in a statement that they were developing a plan to restore the water system to federal standards, identify how the contaminant got into the well and fix it.

The state's Board of Water Supply said it had to shut down the Halawa Shaft, the largest water source on the island of Oahu, as a result of the contamination at the Red Hill well.

“We are deeply concerned that we were not notified immediately by the Navy regarding the shut down of their Red Hill water source,” Ernest Lau, manager and chief engineer, said on Friday. “We have data that shows when they stop pumping at Red Hill, water starts moving in the direction of our Halawa Shaft due to our pumping. In an abundance of caution, we must shut down Halawa Shaft until further notice.”

The AP reports that the fuel in the tanks is used by the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Hawaiʻi National Guard for ships and aircraft, and that the Navy has characterized Red Hill as "vital to maritime security, regional stability, humanitarian assistance and continued prosperity in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region."


Hawaii remains under flood warnings as a 'kona low' storm continues to dump rain

Posted December 7, 2021 at 8:08 AM EST
A pedestrian tries to cross a flooded Queen Street, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Honolulu.
Marco Garcia/AP
FR132414 AP
A pedestrian tries to cross a flooded Queen Street, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Honolulu.

Punishing rains over the Hawaiian Islands have produced gusty winds and flash flooding throughout the state, with weather warnings still in effect as of Tuesday morning.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said the weather had knocked out power and cut off access to some roads, though there were no storm-related deaths as of 2 p.m. Monday afternoon. Still, officials warned the storm, which began over the weekend, remained a threat.

The system -- known as a “kona low” -- struck the Big Island, Maui and Molokaʻi on Sunday and moved westward over the populous island of Oahu on Monday and Tuesday morning.

Public parks in Honolulu, as well as the Honolulu Zoo, closed due to the weather, and four emergency shelters on the island were opened for residents impacted by the storm.

Late on Monday, Gov. David Ige signed an emergency declaration for the entire state, freeing up state funding for the emergency response.

Some areas saw up to 14 inches of rain, according to preliminary rainfall totals from the National Weather Service.

Hawaii’s climate office has said that as the state gets drier it rains less often, but when it does rain the storms are heavier. That can lead to landslides, runoff, algae blooms and catastrophic flooding, which carries economic and public health risks.


Here's what's at stake as Biden and Putin meet virtually this morning

Posted December 7, 2021 at 8:07 AM EST
President Joe Biden (L) and President Vladimir Putin (R), wearing suits and ties, sit in wooden chairs on a rug in front of a room with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves as members of the media look on in the foreground.
Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty Images
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Members of the media film as President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet during the U.S.-Russia summit in June in Geneva.

President Biden is scheduled to hold a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin at 10 a.m. ET. He's expected to tell Putin exactly how the U.S. will respond if Russia invades Ukraine.

It's a pressing issue, as U.S. intelligence officials have seen tens of thousands of Russian troops gathering within striking distance of Ukraine's border over the last few weeks. Russia insists these are its own troops on its own territory, and that it has no aggressive intentions. And while the Biden administration doesn't know just what Putin is planning, it sees Russia's military buildup as a threat.

NPR's Charles Maynes reminds us that it's not without precedent: Russia seized territory from Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and started a proxy war (with a death toll in the thousands) by backing separatists in the Donbas region that same year.

Maynes spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep from Moscow about where each party stands ahead of today's talks. Listen here.

What Biden can tell Putin:

Biden will warn that the cost of any Russian invasion will be high, reinforcing the message that Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave to his counterpart when they met recently. That response would include high-impact economic sanctions coordinated with allies and a stepped-up presence to support NATO allies in the eastern flank.

Biden's team has also said the president prefers a diplomatic path, and is hoping to rejuvenate the Minsk agreements — a stalled peace accord between Ukraine and Russia that has in the past quelled fighting in East Ukraine, however imperfectly.

Read more about Biden's talking points here.

Where U.S. allies stand:

The White House announcedMonday that Biden had participated in a call with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., during which they discussed their shared concern about Russia's military build-up and "increasingly harsh rhetoric."

The leaders reportedly called on Russia to de-escalate tensions, underscored their support for Ukraine's sovereignty and agreed that diplomacy is key to resolving the conflict in East Ukraine.

What Putin wants:

Maynes says that Putin is worried about the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and wants a guarantee from the U.S. and its allies that that won't happen. He says this is Putin "trying to renegotiate NATO's march eastward after the fall of the Soviet Union," which he has long seen as fundamentally unfair and dangerous to Russia's national security.

Importantly, Maynes notes, nobody at NATO is talking about Ukraine joining the alliance in the foreseeable future.

What Ukrainians say:

Ukraine argues that it's an independent country, with the power to decide whether to join NATO or not.

Biden is essentially negotiating on Ukraine's behalf. Maynes says there are some concerns that the U.S. might therefore do more than Ukraine would to appease Moscow, but on the other hand, the optics of caving to Putin's demands aren't good for Biden either.

"I think there's a sense among most Ukrainians that he's got their back," Maynes says.

Here's what happened the last time the two leaders met, at an in-person summit in Geneva back in June.