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News Brief: Surfside Recovery Effort, Assassination Probe, Wildfire Dangers

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Surfside, Fla., the search for survivors is over.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Authorities announced last night they would shift to the recovery phase two weeks after the collapse of a 12-story condominium; 54 people are confirmed dead so far. The effort will now focus on finding the remains of more than 80 others still believed missing.

KING: NPR's Brian Mann is in Miami Beach this morning. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: This must have been a very difficult decision. How was it made?

MANN: Yeah, this was incredibly painful. Speaking to reporters last night, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said after two weeks of round-the-clock digging, search and rescue teams had just done everything possible.

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DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: They ran into a building they were told could collapse, and they braved fire, smoke, torrential rain in the hopes of finding people alive. At this point, we have truly exhausted every option available to us in the search and rescue mission.

MANN: And, you know, Noel, officials here kept saying day after day they hoped for a miracle. But heartbreaking as it is, that just didn't happen. And last night, they said it was time to put emotion aside and start this pivot.

KING: As they start to pivot, we should note there are families there still waiting.

MANN: Yeah, that's right. After the announcement last night, there was this moment of silence to commemorate this moment and then a kind of impromptu ceremony at the memorial site where rescue workers, clergy and some family members came together. And one of those family members, Martin Langesfeld, talked about losing his sister and brother-in-law in the collapse. And then he thanked rescue crews working in that debris field.

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MARTIN LANGESFELD: The first responders and everyone who stood behind this, put their blood, their heart and their souls behind this, and we were together as a community. So I want to truly say thank you. We didn't get the outcome we wanted, but we did become a family.

MANN: And officials here say this moment did not come as a surprise for these families. They were informed for days that hopes were fading.

KING: But, Brian, in similar disasters when buildings have collapsed, like after an earthquake, people have survived for days and even weeks in the rubble. Why not give it more time? Is this different somehow?

MANN: You know, Miami-Dade County Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah spoke about this last night at length. He pointed out how devastating this collapse turned out to be with floor after floor pancaking densely together, leaving really no space for survivors. He described taking family members to show them that there just weren't any of those voids or cavities where survivors might hold on

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RAY JADALLAH: Fourteen days of looking for voids, that's what we've been doing. You know, God, you know, give us at least a large enough void to find a victim. And, you know, we just couldn't. There was no voids. I mean, it was unprecedented.

MANN: And Jadallah said there's also been no signs of life in that debris field since really the first hours after the collapse.

KING: OK. What does it look like there now?

MANN: So the crews are still working around the clock. They're out there finding victims. This is still very important, returning them to their families. And officials say they believe up to 86 people may still be missing, though that's not a firm number. They are asking the public to come forward with any additional information about missing persons. And they also say Miami-Dade County crime scene investigators are working with rabbis and other clergy to find those remains and confirm identities.

KING: NPR's Brian Mann in Miami Beach. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

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KING: All right. A few hours after Haiti's president was assassinated, police killed four suspects in a gun battle and arrested two other people.

FADEL: Early Wednesday morning, gunmen entered the home of President Jovenel Moise and killed him. Moise's wife was wounded but survived. She's being treated in a Miami hospital. Authorities in Haiti say they're determined to find all of those responsible for the killing.

KING: NPR's Carrie Kahn is following this story from Mexico City. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

KING: Good morning to you. What do we know about the men killed and arrested by police yesterday?

KAHN: Last night, Haiti's police director general, Leon Charles, said that police had killed four, quote, "mercenaries" - that's what he called them - and captured two more. He said the killers had been blocked, actually, when they retreated from the president's residence, which they stormed around 1 a.m. Wednesday, killing Jovenel Moise and injuring his wife. He said forces had engaged in a battle with the killers. He also said that three police officers were taken hostage during that battle and have been freed. But not a lot more details than that coming out. Before, we were told that the assassins were professional hitmen who were speaking in English and in Spanish. And that's significant since French and Creole are the main languages in Haiti. And Haiti's ambassador to the U.S. had told reporters that the gunmen were disguising themselves as U.S. DEA agents.

KING: OK, so this will unfold over the next days and weeks, and we'll learn more - a lot of confusing stuff.

KAHN: We hope we learn more, yes.

KING: We hope we learn more. Who is in charge in Haiti right now?

KAHN: The prime minister right now is Claude Joseph. He was appointed recently as an - he was only supposed to be an interim prime minister, and he was actually supposed to be replaced yesterday by the president's new pick for the top government job. So there was a lot of questions about who would remain as the man and - top of the - in charge. And it appears Joseph will remain in power for now. He spoke to the nation yesterday, and he urged Haitians to remain calm.

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CLAUDE JOSEPH: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: And he said President Jovenel Moise will not die without receiving justice. You can kill him, you can kill President Jovenel Moise, but you cannot kill his ideas. Yesterday, the streets were mostly calm in Port au Prince, the capital. But there are a lot - there are local reports of sporadic gunfire and roadblocks, including when they tried to move the president's body to the morgue. A state of siege has been declared in the country, and the international airport and borders are closed.

KING: Haiti is a very poor country that was already dealing with a lot of instability, wasn't it?

KAHN: Yes, incredible. And this has just thrown more chaos into that already volatile situation. Gang violence had skyrocketed of late, as well as kidnappings. COVID cases are on the rise, and Haiti's just always dealing with so much. And it's one of the few countries in the world that hasn't even begun a significant vaccination program. And the security situation in the country is very grave. There's food and fuel shortages. And Moise had long been embattled. You know, there were widespread calls for his removal. Human rights activists - sorry - say Haiti's multiple gangs are linked to political and business leaders who use them as private armies. And many had accused Moise of using them to push his political agenda to reform the constitution and consolidate his own powers. He was already ruling by decree since elections had long been postponed.

KING: What has been the international response to all of this?

KAHN: Widespread condemnation across the hemisphere. President Biden called the killing heinous and said we will stand ready to assist Haiti as needed. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Prime Minister Joseph and reiterated that pledge to work with Haiti.

KING: NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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KING: OK. Wildfire is something that we often think of as affecting mostly western states.

FADEL: That's right. But the threat from fires is now much more widespread because of rising temperatures linked to climate change. Add to that more and more people moving to areas that are prone to burning, often without realizing the danger.

KING: Molly Samuel from member station WABE in Atlanta has been following this story. Hi, Molly.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KING: So you've been covering wildfires in the Southeast, which I don't think of as a fire-prone region.

SAMUEL: Yeah, the Southeast actually has the most wildfires every year. It's just that they're typically smaller, and they get put out faster. Climate change with higher temperatures and more severe droughts is expected to lead to even more frequent and intense fires here. And this sort of underrecognized story isn't just something here in the Southeast. NPR's energy and environment team has been digging into fires outside of the West. The deadliest one in U.S. history was actually in Wisconsin (ph). And even in normally wet New Hampshire, forest managers are seeing this as a rising threat, and they're stepping up prevention measures.

KING: And yet people keep moving into places that are prone to fires. We've heard this story in California actually quite a bit. What's happening where you are in the Southeast? Is this going on there?

SAMUEL: Yeah. So this is about the area known as the wildland-urban interface, which is basically. Where development and wild places meet and it's the fastest growing land use type in the country. Tens of millions of people - it's 1 in 3 homes - are now in areas like this. And the Southeast is the place where the most homes in the wildland-urban interface are being built. And this is a trend as people move out further out of cities because of costs or retirees building their dream home in the woods on the sides of mountains where it's beautiful. Folks I talked to in north Georgia said they saw the pace pick up even more during the pandemic. I met with Mark Wiles, who's with the Georgia Forestry Commission, and he said a lot of people don't realize that fire trucks and firefighters might not be able to help them. And many local fire departments are all volunteer.

MARK WILES: There are so many folks that I have talked to over the years that says, you know, if we have a fire, I'll just call 911. They'll take care of it. What they don't realize is when our resources are exhausted, 911 can't take care of it because there's nobody to send.

SAMUEL: And often, people just don't realize they've moved into any kind of danger.

KING: Are there any building codes or any other kind of regulations that can offer some protection, protect people from themselves?

SAMUEL: Mostly no. Four states have rules around development and fire and some cities have their own. But really in a lot of rural places, there's not much appetite for more regulation. I talked to a woman named Judy Potter who almost lost her home to a big wildfire in north Georgia about five years ago. She told me she had no idea she had built it out of flammable material and in a dangerous location on top of a ridge.

JUDY POTTER: I love it. It's a lovely spot, but it's not a good spot.

SAMUEL: Was any of this stuff on your mind? Did anybody...

POTTER: No. I built for sunshine and look.

SAMUEL: So Potter has gotten really involved in a program called Firewise that teaches homeowners and communities about wildfire danger and how to prepare. And that ends up being the main solution, these kinds of grassroots efforts to reach out homeowner by homeowner and help people protect themselves.

KING: Firewise. Molly Samuel of WABE in Atlanta. Thanks, Molly.

SAMUEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.