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News Brief: Texas Storm, Biden Says 'America's Back,' Native Americans Get Vaccine

NOEL KING, HOST:

The lights have come back on for millions of people in Texas.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Which is helpful because it means people don't need a flashlight when they're up boiling water - more than 13 million people either don't have water or were told it's not safe to drink without boiling. Residents talk of going without showers, without cooking, without using the bathroom, all the result of a winter storm that overcame the power grid and much besides. State Senator Jose Menendez says elected officials need to be held accountable.

JOSE MENENDEZ: What makes me frustrated and upset is that politicians, we're very quick to beat our chests and take credit for things when they're going well. But when it's time - when things have failed, we need to have the same level of responsibility and step up.

KING: Nadia Hamdan is a reporter with member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Good morning, Nadia.

NADIA HAMDAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: You are in Austin. You heard State Senator Jose Menendez say someone's got to take responsibility. Who is taking responsibility at this point?

HAMDAN: I mean, the answer to that is no one really.

KING: OK.

HAMDAN: Obviously, the blame is being pointed at ERCOT. That's the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It's the group that operates the grid in the state. You know, public anger against this group has been so great that they removed the names of its board of directors from its website Wednesday because they were receiving threats. But ERCOT CEO Bill Magnus keeps insisting ERCOT did its job by instituting the blackout to prevent a catastrophic grid failure, which would have been uncontrolled blackouts across the state that could have lasted weeks, if not months. So, you know, he's saying these grid operators made a tough call, but they made the right call. He's pointing to these calls for winterizing, basically, these power generators, making them able to withstand really extreme cold. He's saying, you know, I don't have any authority over that; that's not my decision to make.

But then, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has kept his finger pointed firmly at ERCOT. He's saying, you know, Magnus had told him that they were ready before the storm hit. He said they had winterized properly. He said they had enough power to meet peak demand. And in a press conference yesterday, Abbott said flat-out that ERCOT failed and that Texans deserve answers. And so he's putting forth a slew of executive orders right now, emergency items to be added to the current legislative session to figure out what happened here. And he's saying, I am putting forth emergency items to mandate winterization of generators and the power systems and getting the funding needed to do that.

But it is worth noting, you know, there was a federal report back in 2011 after we did have blackouts similar to what we're seeing now, where grid managers were found that they had not mandated strong winter weatherization. Like, they had not winterized these...

KING: Oh.

HAMDAN: So this has happened before, basically. And so that's where a lot of criticism is coming from. If we had seen that these systems needed to be winterized before, why is this happening again?

KING: I imagine there will be much investigation into these questions over the next couple of weeks and months.

We have talked this week to reporters in Dallas, north of you, and San Antonio, south of you. Geographically, you're sort of in the middle. What's it been like in Austin?

HAMDAN: Not great. Sure, we have our power coming back on. You know, we were, I think at our worst point, 226,000 people without power. I think now we're less than about 18,000. Now we're being told very vaguely we may have days without water. So it's looking pretty bleak. We're not quite sure what to do. Everyone is kind of just trying to do the best they can to keep their heads above water, no pun intended. And yeah, we're just waiting to hear more from our local and state leaders.

KING: All right. Well, stay safe and warm.

Nadia Hamdan of member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Thank you.

HAMDAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: The Biden administration wants to talk to Iranian leaders about rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement.

INSKEEP: Let's recall here - Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from that deal and restored sanctions on Iran. That put the U.S. at odds with U.S. allies who remain part of the agreement along with other world powers. Today, in his first speech to world leaders, President Biden lays out his plan.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following this story. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What do we expect to hear President Biden say about Iran?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, senior officials told us yesterday that the United States is ready to accept an invitation from the European Union to hold talks with Iran - about its nuclear program, of course. Obviously, the former president, Donald Trump, had quit the deal that was aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program. Biden said during the campaign that he was ready to take steps to rejoin the international pact, but his team has repeatedly said that Iran first needed to come back into compliance.

Officials said yesterday that Biden will not get into specifics about timetables, but added that he's keen to hear what Iran has to say. And it's still really unclear if the Iranians would even accept such an offer. They had demanded that sanctions be lifted first. But regardless, this is a big step toward diplomacy with Iran, which we have not seen in four years.

KING: I'm struck by the language that the U.S. is ready to accept an invitation from the European Union. And it makes me wonder, does Biden have to convince U.S. allies that we are prepared to work with them again, that we will work with them again?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, in short, yes. I mean, we expect that Biden, today, is really going to dig into his America-is-back message. A senior official told us last night that the speech would be a, quote, "confident clarion call" for European allies to work together on global challenges. He'll talk about working together on the pandemic, as well as other issues like arms control, cyberhacking and climate change. And to prove that commitment, he plans to announce a $4 billion contribution to COVAX. That's the international fund to help get COVID vaccines to the poorest countries.

KING: The president will be making this speech to the Munich Security Conference virtually. He won't be there in person, of course. Who is he going to be speaking to today?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he is a very familiar face at this conference, which is a kind of who's who of people involved in national security around the world. The leaders of Germany, France and the United Kingdom will also be there. But, you know, as we've noted, there's a lot of uncertainty about the United States' commitment to transatlantic affairs. Here's actually Charles Kupchan, who was a senior adviser in the Obama administration, talking about that.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: The biggest change is that Biden will be speaking to Europeans after a period in which electorates on both sides of the Atlantic have looked into the abyss.

ORDOÑEZ: And what that means is that Americans and Europeans remain in shock, you know, about the growth of global populism, which has raised questions about the stability of liberal democracies, as we know.

KING: Big speech for Joe Biden.

NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: The rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in this country has been pretty messy.

INSKEEP: But not everywhere and not for everyone - Native American tribes have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. Yet a new analysis by NPR shows that many tribes are getting people vaccinated at much faster rates than the general population. So how are they doing that?

KING: NPR's Kirk Siegler has been looking into it. Good morning, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: This seems like very good news for this particular group of people. How did they make it happen?

SIEGLER: Well, there's a couple of things at play here. For one, the tribes got really good at testing during the pandemic, and so they've been able to convert some of that infrastructure into mass vaccination clinics now. Noel, tribes had the option to go through their state or the Indian Health Service to get the vaccine. Our analysis showed that those that went with the IHS - and the bulk did - are doing pretty good when you compare their rates to state averages. The IHS has consistently ranked near the top for getting the shots in people's arms. You know, people will tell you the IHS isn't perfect, certainly, but it is at least a system that's centralized and there's a supply chain in place. Let's hear from Callie Raymond. She's a nurse running the mass vaccination clinics on the Rosebud Reservation, where I've been in South Dakota.

CALLIE RAYMOND: Takes a lot of critical thinking in how we're going to utilize this vaccine so we don't waste it.

SIEGLER: You know, they get really creative. The night of the Super Bowl, she told me that they had some no-shows for appointments, so she drove to a supermarket where they made an announcement and got rid of all the shots. You know, some tribal members don't have cars, they don't have cellphones, so the tribe sends out shuttles to pick them up and bring them in. And of the about 5,000 shots so far, they've only wasted three.

KING: Three shots - that is extraordinary. And the thing that is so stark about this success is that Native Americans who live on reservations really did get hit very hard by this virus.

MENENDEZ: Exactly. You know, many Native people have health conditions making them more at risk. There have also been broken treaties over the decades when it comes to the federal government's obligations to funding health care for tribes. You know, the Rosebud Reservation, where I've been, has the second-lowest life expectancy rate in the nation. Only Pine Ridge next door is worse.

Wayne Bear Shield, who works for the tribe, he told me that the virus spreads so fast when it got there.

WAYNE BEAR SHIELD: It only takes one person, the way we are in a family. And some of us have large families. Some of us feed 17 people at a time.

KING: Native Americans mistrust the federal government, arguably for some very good historical reasons. Did you meet people who were suspicious of the vaccine coming, as it does, from the federal level?

SIEGLER: Absolutely. There's definitely some hesitancy toward the vaccine and some skepticism toward the IHS in particular for delivering it, which has long been underfunded. And you know, some people I met who lost loved ones were also just sad and angry that - you know, they feel like they missed their chance to get the vaccine. A lot of the deaths and cases peaked in South Dakota in November, just before they came online.

I met Lila Kills In Sight. She lost her 81-year-old mother, and she was one of the few remaining fluent Lakota speakers on the reservation in a community known as Spring Creek. Now to channel some of her grief, Lila Kills In Sight told me she's giving rides to elders so they can get vaccinated.

LILA KILLS IN SIGHT: I've been so adamant about telling people - take it; take it. You - we have to because that's the only way it's going to stop.

SIEGLER: You know, she's had both shots herself now. She told me she was a little hesitant at first due to survivor's guilt, rather, but she knew that that's what her mom would have wanted.

KING: NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thanks for this, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.