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News brief: Florida evacuations, Brazil's election, Supreme Court preview

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Officials in Lee County, Fla., issued mandatory evacuation orders only one day before Hurricane Ian hit land, despite days of warnings beforehand.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So did that decision contribute to the death toll? So far, we know at least 81 people died in Florida during the storm and its aftermath, and of those, 42 - more than half - were in Lee County.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Brian Mann has been following the story. Brian, so take us through the timeline. When did officials in Lee County start telling people they had to go?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. So three days before the storm hit, the National Hurricane Center sent an advisory saying Ian could drive this devastating storm surge, up to 7 feet of water, in this area around Lee County. Then two days before landfall - this is last Monday - the center issued an official warning, and it appears, A, that that warning should have triggered a mandatory evacuation order under Lee County's own emergency management plan. But that's not what happened. While at least one neighboring county did issue a mandatory evacuation order on Monday, Lee County officials held off. They delayed until the next day, Tuesday morning. The storm and the flood of seawater slammed ashore Wednesday, when a lot of people were still out on those remote barrier islands, vulnerable.

MARTINEZ: So why didn't Lee County follow their own emergency management plan?

MANN: Yeah, the chair of Lee County Board of Commissioners, Cecil Pendergrass, was asked about this at a press conference yesterday. He said they believed the brunt of the storm would hit elsewhere along the coast.

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CECIL PENDERGRASS: Seventy-two hours before the storm, we still were not in the cone - Lee County wasn't. So the emergency - state emergency director said that. We noticed that locally. We were working off of data.

MANN: But here's the thing, A - that forecast cone Pendergrass mentions there, that's only the center of the storm. Ian, of course, was a massive hurricane. Its deadly power and the surge of water were predicted by the National Hurricane Center to extend well beyond that path.

MARTINEZ: Now, what does Pendergrass think of this delay and the fact that they didn't follow their plan? Did they think that it may have contributed to any loss of life?

MANN: You know, Pendergrass didn't speak to that directly, except to say he thinks responsibility lies with the residents who chose not to leave their homes.

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PENDERGRASS: People get callous of that. We have a lot of people move here in the last five years that's never been through a hurricane, and they just say, oh, it's no big deal. They forget about the force of water. So they didn't leave. I respect their choices. But I'm sure a lot of them regret it now.

MANN: But again, for some people who may have wanted to get out, it's possible there just wasn't enough time once that mandatory evacuation order was finally issued. Lee County's own emergency plan warns that it takes at least 20 hours for people on some of those remote islands to evacuate.

MARTINEZ: What has Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said about this?

MANN: Well, he's backing local officials. He told reporters that officials in Lee County made the best decision they could with the information available, and he, too, put responsibility on residents.

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RON DESANTIS: Everybody had adequate opportunity to at least get to a shelter within the county. But, you know, a lot of the residents did not want to do that, I think, for - probably for various reasons. Some people just don't want to leave their home, period. They're island people, whatever.

MANN: And this is actually something we're hearing from local people in Lee County, survivors of the storm. Many of them told NPR they understood the risk and decided to stay. Here's Louis Schley, who lives in Fort Myers.

LOUIS SCHLEY: The governor, he gave fair warning and everything, to evacuate and all. But the wife and I decided, no, we're just going to stay.

MANN: But there is a difference, of course, between a warning and a mandatory evacuation order. The question is whether more people would have gotten to safety if the county had issued that order a day sooner.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: In Brazil, the presidential race heads to a runoff at the end of this month, after the far-right incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro, did far better than expected.

INSKEEP: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leftist former president, came in first but did not win outright. He needed a majority and fell just a bit short. It was a polarized election between two men considered populists - one on the left, one on the right.

MARTINEZ: NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn joins us now from Rio de Janeiro with the latest. Carrie, it was a much tighter race than expected. So what happened?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Two things - the right in Brazil came out in big numbers and sent the race to a runoff, and the pollsters were wrong. They were just wrong. Brazil's major polls had predicted a double-digit win by former president and leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Many Bolsonaro voters may have switched at the last minute or just wouldn't admit voting for Bolsonaro to pollsters. We don't know. He's just a provocative, brash, far-right nationalist here. He rails against political correctness, makes homophobic comments. He's criticized for bungling the COVID pandemic. And under his tenure, destruction of the Amazon rainforest has skyrocketed. But his base is loyal. They came out for him, like Juthe Cardoza. Here's what she said.

JUTHE CARDOZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "We Brazilians love Bolsonaro as much as you Americans love Trump." Trump is a political ally of the president here, who takes many cues from the former U.S. president. He cries fraud a lot and says the media lies, and pollsters are wrong, and last night, he got to say he was right about the polls.

MARTINEZ: What about da Silva? What has he said about his performance yesterday?

KAHN: He spoke to supporters in a very subdued rally after the final vote count was in. The 76-year-old leftist said he's prepared for the runoff and a chance to debate Bolsonaro one-on-one.

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LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: He says, "the struggle will continue until the final victory for Brazil." Da Silva is remembered here for his big government spending that really helped lift many people out of poverty. An outright victory for him last night would have been a spectacular political comeback. After his presidency, he was jailed on corruption charges in 2018. He was released from jail and later had his conviction annulled. But many voters don't trust him or his party.

MARTINEZ: Now, the act of actually going to the polls, Carrie, how did that go yesterday? And what expectations about the next four weeks are there leading up to the runoff?

KAHN: Well, I saw very long lines in polling stations here in Rio de Janeiro. It's going to be a tense and intense next four weeks until the October 30 runoff. Brazil is very polarized right now. These two men have outlined very distinct plans for the country. Look; generally, the poor went for da Silva and see economics as the main issue for them. Brazil's economy is sputtering still after the pandemic. And Bolsonaro supporters generally are more well-off, and they really go for his family-values, anti-abortion, pro-gun message. He speaks a lot about the political-left turn in Latin America, especially in places like Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia and Chile. And if allowed to come to Brazil, he says the, quote, "communists will erode those liberties," and as he repeatedly says, he's the defender of God, family, homeland and liberty.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: The Supreme Court begins a new term today.

INSKEEP: They resume their work after an unsettled summer that included celebrations of and protests against their rulings. Justices asserted their views in several big cases. Five justices made a choice to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion. The majority upheld gun rights. It also employed a recent concept called the major questions doctrine, which the justices use to limit federal regulation. Now the court resumes its work.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now with a preview of the court's term is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, last term, the court overturned Roe v. Wade, and now it finds its approval rating plummeting to historic lows. How low are those lows?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, the numbers have dropped - more than 60% approval two years ago to below 40% and lower now - so low, in fact, that Chief Justice John Roberts sought to defend the court's legitimacy while speaking to a conference of judges and lawyers in Colorado.

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JOHN ROBERTS: The decisions have always been subject to intense criticism. And that is entirely appropriate, but lately, the criticism is phrased in terms of the legitimacy of the court, and I think it's a mistake to view those criticisms in that light.

TOTENBERG: It's the job of the court to say what the law is, Roberts said.

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ROBERTS: And that role doesn't change simply because people disagree with this opinion or that opinion. You don't want the political branches telling you what the law is, and you don't want public opinion to be the guide of what the appropriate decision is.

TOTENBERG: But Justice Elena Kagan has pointedly disagreed with some of what Roberts said, noting in three separate appearances that, in her view, a court's legitimacy has to be earned. She said precedent should be reversed only in the rarest of cases because...

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ELENA KAGAN: If a new judge comes in, if there's new members of a court and, all of a sudden, everything is up for grabs, all of a sudden very fundamental principles of law are being overthrown, then people have a right to say, you know, what's going on there? That doesn't seem very lawlike.

MARTINEZ: All right, with a new court term beginning today, Nina, what are the big cases?

TOTENBERG: Well, there are several race cases. Most prominent is a case asking the court to reverse more than four decades of precedent, allowing colleges and universities to consider using race as one of many factors in college admissions. Race is also at the heart of a challenge brought by Alabama to the way the Voting Rights Act has been used in redistricting cases for decades. And race is central to a challenge to the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires that, where at all possible, Indian children should be adopted or fostered in Indian homes.

MARTINEZ: And there's a big LGBTQ rights case. Tell us about that one.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, there is. It challenges public accommodations laws in most states, laws that bar businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, national origin or sex. So basically, the issue is this - can a business owner refuse to provide certain services to a same-sex couple because it would amount to an endorsement of the couple's lifestyle and, therefore, would violate the business owners' right to freedom of expression? And last but certainly not least, there's another huge case involving election law. It centers on the so-called independent state legislature theory. In its most extreme form, the theory would bar state judges from reviewing state election rules for compliance with state laws and state constitutions.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks.

TOTENBERG: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.