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President Biden is making a promise to survivors of one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For as long as it takes, we're going to be with you. The whole country will be with you.


The president traveled to Maui to pledge federal help in rebuilding the historic seaside town of Lahaina. That's where the death toll has now risen to 115. Most of those victims remain unidentified.

MARTIN: NPR's Jennifer Ludden is in Maui, and she's on the line with us now to tell us more. Jennifer, hello. Thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: So it's been two weeks since this terrible fire. Where are the survivors now?

LUDDEN: Well, you know, a lot of them are still squeezing in with family and friends. But now more than 1,900 have been placed in hotels or Airbnbs. You know, this is a big tourist destination. There are a lot of those. Amanda Vierra's family of four is in a one-bedroom with about three weeks of rent help from the state. And she is grateful. But she says because of damage from the fire, you know, cell service has been spotty, and just applying for aid online has been incredibly difficult.

AMANDA VIERRA: There's no Wi-Fi and stuff. And so I have to, like, stand at a certain spot in my room to get internet, which is hard. And, you know, we lost two cars, a dirt bike, and you can't get anywhere to get Wi-Fi if you don't have a car.

LUDDEN: You know, Vierra just got approved for a FEMA payment. She says it's $5,462, and it is supposed to be for two months housing. But she says the place that she's in now is a lot more than that. And it's not easy finding housing here. It's one of the most expensive markets in the country. There was a housing shortage even before the fire. Vierra says her sister-in-law got so frustrated looking for a place, she and her kids just left for Washington state.

MARTIN: You know, that sounds like a huge challenge. So what are people being told about how long they'll even have this aid?

LUDDEN: Hawaii's governor has said people will have their housing paid into next spring. But a lot of people I speak with, they just don't seem to trust that, including Jeremy Delos Reyes.

JEREMY DELOS REYES: There's a couple of resorts in this area that they're trying to open in 11 days, 12 days. So now where does those hotel rooms go, right? So they need tourism - well, they think they need tourism here.

LUDDEN: Reyes was born and raised here. And there is some tension around tourism. It's helped drive up the cost of living, though, of course, it also provides many thousands of jobs. Several people have told me they see so many empty vacation homes right now, and they just wish more of those owners would let fire survivors stay in them for a bit.

MARTIN: So during President Biden's visit, he and other political leaders repeatedly said that Lahaina should be rebuilt the way the residents want it. Are you hearing from people about that, and what are they saying?

LUDDEN: Very much so. There is a real fear that longtime residents will lose their land here to developers. And, you know, this place has cultural significance. It was the site of the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. And you do see this over and over after extreme weather events. Rebuilding is expensive, and people get priced out. And in Lahaina, it was the older, less expensive area that burned. At least two apartments were subsidized housing. And last year, one of them fought a legal battle against a developer to keep it that way. Now, the governor has said he wants to find some way to ban property sales for a while. Some residents say they've already gotten phone calls from developers wanting to buy their land, and community activists have been rallying them, telling them to stay strong and not sell.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden in Maui. Jennifer, thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you.


MARTIN: There is no ignoring this - extreme weather events that are disrupting so many lives this summer and, in too many cases, taking lives.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, listen to this list - intense wildfires in Hawaii, in Washington state and across Canada, a former hurricane that has walloped Mexico, California and Nevada and now threatens Oregon and Idaho, and a suffocating heat wave across the central and Southern U.S.

MARTIN: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk is here to tell us more about this. Good morning, Rebecca.


MARTIN: OK, so let's just say it. This isn't just bad luck, is it?

HERSHER: No, no, not at all. You know, it's all related to human-caused climate change. Climate change does not cause extreme events, right? But really intense fires and hurricanes - it makes them more likely and more common. So as the Earth heats up, we increasingly get these years, especially summers, where it feels like disaster on disaster on disaster, all of them driven in part by warmer temperatures. So, for example, hurricanes - they've always happened. But when the ocean is abnormally hot at the surface, it helps hurricanes grow. We are seeing that right now in both the Pacific, where Hurricane Hilary formed, and in the Atlantic, where there are multiple potential storms right now. The same is true for wildfires. Wildfires are an important part of healthy forest ecosystems, but drought and heat can make them burn more widely, make them burn more intensely than in the past. So if it feels like it can't be normal, it's not, or it didn't used to be.

MARTIN: So is this a preview of our future on a planet that's heating up?

HERSHER: You know, in some ways, I think, yes, especially in August. You know, it can be a stark reminder of climate change for millions of people in the U.S. this time of year because there is so much extreme weather. But it's not like this year is that exceptional, to be frank, you know, especially if you zoom out and look at the planet as a whole. Last year there were record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires and heat waves. The year before that - same deal - the year before that and the year before that. And I say that not to minimize it, but to give the context. You know, the last nine years are the hottest nine years ever recorded on planet Earth. Climate change is just relentlessly wreaking havoc on people everywhere. It's just a matter of when that extreme weather will come for you and arrive in your community.

MARTIN: Is it possible to avoid even more catastrophic effects?

HERSHER: You know, it is. The big thing is to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, stop burning oil and gas and coal, transition to wind and solar. Scientists say that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and get all the way to basically zero by 2050. Right now, it is not clear that there's political will to do that. There's an array of fossil fuel and corporate interests that are slowing things down.

The other thing to remember, though, is that even though climate change does make the weather more intense, we can lessen the damage by building our homes and our cities and our electrical grids in resilient ways, by having emergency plans that keep climate-driven weather in mind because it's going to keep happening, by preparing and protecting those who are most vulnerable to this weather. You know, I'm thinking about floods like the ones in California this week or the fire in Maui. The weather was related to climate change to varying degrees. But how we prepare for and react to that weather can determine who lives and who dies.

MARTIN: That's Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk. Rebecca, thanks so much once again.

HERSHER: Thanks.


MARTIN: What's known as the BRICS group of emerging economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - kicks off its annual summit today in Johannesburg.

MARTÍNEZ: It's a bloc of nations that is sometimes dismissed for a lot of talk with little substance. But this year, the U.S. and Europe are watching closely because of how polarizing Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been. China's President Xi Jinping will attend in person. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not, but will join virtually to avoid putting South Africa in the awkward position of having to arrest him for war crimes under an International Criminal Court warrant.

MARTIN: We're going to hear more about this from Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. So why don't you just start us off with the headlines? What are the key issues these leaders will take up?

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: Well, two main things on the agenda this year - namely the possible expansion of the bloc to include more countries. Already collectively, BRICS accounts for 25% of global GDP and 40% of the world's population. Now, some 40 more countries have expressed interest in joining the bloc. And like the current grouping, they include a politically diverse group with democracies like Argentina and autocracies like Iran. But not all the BRICS members are as keen on expansion as others. Russia is spearheading the push for expansion as because of the war in Ukraine, Russia is increasingly isolated. Another main issue on the agenda will be the bloc's desire to move away from U.S. dollar dominance and to promote more use of its own currencies.

MARTIN: Kate, would you say more about whether the group is becoming more relevant?

BARTLETT: I think so. The sheer number wanting to join shows many Global South countries buy what BRICS is selling, an alternative to what they see as a U.S.-dominated, unequal global order, something the summit host and South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, referred to in an eve-of-summit address to the nation. Let's hear what he had to say.


PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: An expanded BRICS will represent a diverse group of nations with different political systems that share a common desire to have a more balanced global order. Our world has become increasingly complex and fractured as it is increasingly polarized and competing with each other.

BARTLETT: And the Ukraine war will likely be the elephant in the room, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov filling in for Putin. Both China and South Africa have officially remained neutral on the war but have each proposed peace plans. But host country South Africa has received a lot of flak for not criticizing the Russian invasion and its perceived bias towards Moscow. But Ramaphosa says it doesn't serve African nations to be drawn into a kind of new Cold War.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, I take it that China's President Xi is not just there for the summit, is he?

BARTLETT: That's right. Possibly most significantly, Chinese President Xi Jinping is also paying an official state visit to South Africa today. It's only his second international trip this year after visiting Russia. China's South Africa's biggest trade partner by far and a significant presence in Africa. But South African officials have stressed there is a trade imbalance that needs addressing. There have also been concerns about how China's own economic downturn might affect trade.

MARTIN: That's reporter Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Kate, thank you so much.

BARTLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.