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News Brief: Ida Aftermath, Afghan Evacuations, Service Members Tribute

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ida has weakened into a tropical storm as it moves up Louisiana and into Mississippi.

NOEL KING, HOST:

What it has left behind, though, is devastating. Although, at this moment, it's difficult to determine to what degree. We do know that almost a million people in Louisiana have lost electricity. And we do know that one person so far has been reported dead.

MARTINEZ: NPR's John Burnett is on the line with us from New Orleans. John, you rode out Ida in a hotel in Uptown. How bad was it?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Well, the answer, A, is that we don't truly know yet. The storm started to ease up down here just as the sky was turning from the color of an angry sea to black night. So it hasn't been safe yet for anyone to drive around and inventory the damage. But the city of New Orleans, with nearly a million people with 750,000 homes and businesses, is completely without power. I looked out my hotel window here into the Garden District, and there are no lights at all. You know, imagine Bourbon Street plunged into complete darkness. The power company, Entergy, reported last night that its equipment suffered catastrophic transmission damage because of the storm. There are reports that a major transmission tower near the Mississippi River has collapsed. What we know is that the storm made landfall, but then it slowed down and took a more northerly track, which put it closer to New Orleans. And the city just got pummeled with winds exceeding 75 miles per hour for hours. A weather station across the river not far from here registered a 102-mile-per-hour wind gust.

MARTINEZ: Wow. How does that compare with the rest of southeastern Louisiana?

BURNETT: Well, we'll know better today. The spotty reports we've been monitoring on local news and social media is that these smaller towns closer to the coast just took a fearsome beating. Places like Grand Isle, Houma, Raceland, Cocodrie took a direct hit from a 140-mile-per-hour-plus winds. We've seen reports of the wind peeling roofs off all over this region - a hospital in the town of Galliano, a senior citizens center in Metairie, a TV station in the New Orleans area. There's also a report that 22 barges broke loose in the Mississippi River downstream from New Orleans. So we'll see what dawn brings. Here's Governor John Bel Edwards at a press conference yesterday urging people to keep hunkering down today.

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JOHN BEL EDWARDS: Quite frankly, we can't tell you yet how soon it will be before first responders are going to be able to respond to calls for assistance. So please don't go out. And the extent to which individuals decide to get out and about will inhibit the flow of first responders and search and rescue assets, high-water vehicles and so forth. So please be patient.

MARTINEZ: John, when I think about Hurricane Ida, I keep thinking about Hurricane Katrina. Too early to make that comparison?

BURNETT: Well, A, I was here during and after Katrina, and I think we all know there is no comparison. Katrina was the costliest storm in history - 1,800 dead, more than $100 billion in damage. But let's just look at the weather. Ida actually had higher winds at landfall - 150 miles per hour when it crossed the coast here compared to Katrina's 125 miles per hour at landfall. The difference is that Katrina was a Category 5 in the middle of the Gulf. So it was pushing this mountain of water in front of it, a 20-foot storm surge in Mississippi. Then it dropped down to a Cat 3 on landfall. Floodwaters gushed into the canals and lakes surrounding and interlacing greater New Orleans. And it led to the failure of the federally built levees and flood walls. We remember 80% of the city was inundated. New Orleans sank into utter chaos. And Washington, you know, terribly bungled its response. Right now, New Orleans is experiencing a massive power outage. We don't know yet the extent of injuries or deaths, but if the levees and floodwalls held, this city can breathe an enormous - a historic sigh of relief.

MARTINEZ: Let's hope so. That's NPR's John Burnett in New Orleans. John, stay safe. Thanks.

BURNETT: You bet, A.

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MARTINEZ: Tomorrow is the deadline that President Biden set for all American troops and U.S. citizens to be out of Afghanistan.

KING: Yeah, officials say they can airlift out 300 more Americans if those folks want to leave now. The U.S. says another attack could come at any time. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has confirmed that U.S. forces conducted an airstrike on a vehicle in Kabul yesterday. Two ISIS militants died, the Pentagon says. And U.S. Central Command says it is investigating reports that there were also civilian deaths.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now from Kabul is Ali Latifi. He's a journalist with Al-Jazeera. Ali, what is it like around the Kabul airport right now?

ALI LATIFI: Around the airport, it's fairly calm. There are fewer people out than there would have been in previous days. The Taliban have extended their security perimeter further out. And, you know, for the last few days, even before the Thursday attack, they were told by the U.S. not to let anyone without a foreign passport or a U.S. green card in. So for a lot of people, their hopes that getting out are now gone, even people who had made it through the process and were just waiting to get into the gates.

MARTINEZ: The U.S. is just a few hours away from the end of both the troop withdrawal and civilians being evacuated. How do people there feel about this right now?

LATIFI: They're quite angry because, you know, what happened yesterday is reminiscent of what has happened throughout the 20 years of this war, including the first days of this war and what is now taking place the last days of this war. And that is that, you know, the Taliban are in power and that civilians continue to die. You know, the war here started with airstrikes in Kabul and it's ending with airstrikes in Kabul. So people are very, very angry and are ready to see the U.S. go.

MARTINEZ: Ali Latifia of Al-Jazeera English in Kabul, thank you very much.

LATIFI: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: President Biden and first lady Jill Biden traveled to Dover Air Force Base yesterday for one of the most solemn duties in any presidency.

KING: They went to pay their respects to the 13 U.S. service members who were killed in an attack last week at the airport in Kabul. Biden met with their family members and then observed what is known as a dignified transfer. That's carrying the fallen service members' remains from the military aircraft that brought them home to the U.S.

MARTINEZ: NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez traveled with the president to Dover. Franco, this ceremony is steeped in history, steeped in tradition and always, always heart wrenching.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, A, this was Biden's first visit to Dover Air Force Base as president to honor fallen service members. Now, we reporters were positioned across from him and the first lady, as well as some of his aides. Next to us were the family members. And although there was a bus between us, you could hear some family weeping as their loved ones were carried across the tarmac. It was really hard, but it was also very touching and delicate. The Marines, for example, and their white gloves walked so softly, toe to heel, carrying the cases across the tarmac and gently placing the cases into awaiting vehicles. You know, it was really so quiet that the only thing you could hear were the soft commands of the officers and the machinery of the plane and, you know, as I mentioned, the soft cries from family.

MARTINEZ: How did President Biden react?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it was very formal. The president would stand at attention with his hand over his heart, you know, as each of the teams, first from the Army, then the Marines, the Navy, brought the flag-draped cases across the airstrip. He would often bow his head for a moment after each service member was lifted into the van.

MARTINEZ: Franco, before the event, as we just mentioned, the U.S. launched another drone strike against suspected ISIS attackers. What more can you tell us about the likelihood of another attack?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, well, it's high. I mean, President Biden said this weekend that his commanders predict a likely attack in the next 24 to 36 hours. He was briefed on yesterday's drone strike and ordered his commanders to redouble their security efforts as they pull not only troops but also equipment from Afghanistan. You know, they prevented the alleged attack by intercepting rockets launched at Kabul's airport. But the deadline to get out is tomorrow. So, you know, as tough as the past two weeks have been, the next two days are potentially going to be even more tense.

MARTINEZ: And President Biden has been criticized by both Republicans and some Democrats. How has he been responding to that?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he's digging in and not backing down despite taking some major political hits over what's really been a chaotic exit of this long war. You know, he argues that the airport attack is all the more reason to leave. It's just too dangerous. But the chaos and the deaths of the 13 U.S. service members has really increased criticism. And Biden's image is suffering with, you know, many Americans supporting keeping U.S. troops in the country until all Americans and Afghan supporters are evacuated. Now, you can add the challenges of the delta variant, and it's been a very, very difficult month for Biden. And it's hurt the image that he and his team have tried to carve out for himself as a steady leader at the helm.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thank you very much.

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