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News Brief: Wildfires, Florida Recount, Michelle Obama's Memoir


David Greene in Thousand Oaks, Calif. And, Rachel, this is the community where a gunman killed a dozen people and himself at a bar last week. And then a second tragedy came the next day. A wildfire destroyed homes and sent people fleeing. And that fire is still raging as of this morning. And there are many residents who are still in evacuation centers here.


Right. And as you know, that's not even the worst fire in the state right now. The Camp Fire, as it's called, in Northern California, leveled an entire community. We're talking about the town of Paradise. At this point, the death toll there is 29. But the sheriff says more than 200 people are still unaccounted for. So it could be a whole lot worse than we think.

GREENE: Yeah, it sure could. Reporter Sonja Hutson of member station KQED is not far from Paradise. She is in Oroville, Calif., just a few miles from the evacuation zones in Northern California. Hi there, Sonja.


GREENE: So 200 people - more than 200 people still missing from the fire up where you are. It's been a couple days now since that fire tore through the town of Paradise. I mean, I can't even imagine how families are coping right now.

HUTSON: Yeah, well, let me tell you the story of one woman I talked to over the weekend whose son and his family are among those more than 200 people missing. Her name is Katie McCreary (ph). She lives in Paradise. And I met her when she was sitting on the side of the road near a roadblock, at the entrance to an evacuation zone, just hoping that her family would come out.

KATIE MCCREARY: But my son is pretty ingenious. He's a camper and a hunter. And so he knows how to take care of himself. So I'm sure his family is all with him. And they've probably gone out in the woods and found a stream and are having a good time.

HUTSON: And it was really obvious Katie was trying to stay optimistic and have a good attitude in the face of all this tragedy. But just a few minutes later, she did tell me that she was worried her family wouldn't make it out alive.

GREENE: Wow. Well, we'll just hope for the best for her family and so many others.


GREENE: Did you get into Paradise and see what - I mean, just see how bad the damage has been there?

HUTSON: Yeah, I drove into Paradise a couple times. It's in this - what used to be a beautiful forested canyon with just one road in and out of it, which made evacuating difficult, actually, because of traffic jams that developed. And the whole town was just flattened by the fire - block after block after block of burned houses. I saw this whole row of cars and a school bus that had obviously been pulled over to the side of the road when people abandoned them trying to evacuate. And they'd been totally engulfed by flames.

I met two teachers from Paradise Elementary that evacuated with some of their students who couldn't be picked up by their parents. And here's how they described that journey. This is Vicky Steindorf and Sabine Coffee.

VICKY STEINDORF: We saw those houses that were burning on the side. And propane tanks are exploding, and the power poles are on. And I'm thinking, if those burn and fall...



COFFEE: Which we saw they did, you know, later.


HUTSON: They all made it out OK, but as we mentioned earlier, many did not. The fire was so intense. Authorities have found people's remains inside cars, which leads them to believe they were trying to evacuate but couldn't. And their remains are so badly burned, none of them have been identified yet. And the sheriff coroner's office is having to work with anthropologists in a DNA lab to identify them.

GREENE: God, that's amazing. I - something like this happened last year - right? - in the city of Santa Rosa. I mean, why are these fires so destructive?

HUTSON: One of the big reasons is urban sprawl. People are building in really, really high-fire-danger areas now.

GREENE: All right, that is Sonja Hutson from member station KQED reporting on that fire in Northern California. Sonja, we appreciate it.

HUTSON: Thank you.


MARTIN: All right, Florida is recounting more than 8 million votes right now because of tight races. This has never happened in the state's history, believe it or not.

GREENE: Yeah, Governor Rick Scott, who's running for a Republican Senate seat, accuses his rival, Bill Nelson, of trying to steal the election. Scott's lead has narrowed to less than 13,000 votes. He's filed three new suits against county election officials as the recount is getting underway. This is Scott on "Fox Sunday" (ph).


RICK SCOTT: Senator Nelson is clearly trying to find - trying to commit fraud to try to win this election. That's all this is.

GREENE: All right, now, Nelson has also filed suit demanding to re-examine ballots with signature issues. Nelson released this video.


BILL NELSON: Clearly, Rick Scott is trying to stop all the votes from being counted. And he's impeding the democratic process.

MARTIN: All right, so we have got NPR's Miles Parks with us in Tallahassee, Fla., where he is looking at these three races - right, Miles? I mean, it's the governor's race, the Senate race and an agriculture commissioner race. These are all tight, and recounts are happening. And there are lawsuits, right? Let's start in the Senate race. What's happening?

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Yeah, absolutely, Rachel. So right now the Senate race is the tightest of the three races that you mentioned. The margin there is about 0.15 percentage point, differentiating between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott. And lawsuits are flying. Lawyers are coming in from all over the country. One of the lawsuits - basically what you're seeing is a battle of two narratives. Rick Scott, as you mentioned in that clip, is kind of - is really pushing a look at voter fraud without any evidence.

He hasn't given any evidence to support these claims. But he - his lawsuits are really aimed at casting doubt on the process. One of the ones he filed this weekend is asking for law enforcement to impound voting machines in Broward County, in Palm Beach County, when they're not in use, seeming to imply that if the voting machines stay in the supervisor of election's office, that there could be some sort of issue or funny business.

MARTIN: Why has Broward and Palm Beach - why are these counties at the epicenter of this?

PARKS: Well, two things here - so the first thing is that these are huge Democratic strongholds. And both Republicans and Democrats recognize that if Bill Nelson is to overtake Rick Scott, it's going to be through these two counties. In Broward, for instance, the margin there, Bill Nelson more than doubled up Rick Scott - almost 70 percent of the votes there.

The second thing - and probably more importantly - is that election administration there has been notoriously shoddy. These counties were the last to report their results in the primary. There's been allegations. A judge reprimanded Broward County supervisor of elections Brenda Snipes in 2016 for destroying ballots before she was supposed to. It was after those ballots had already been counted, but it was still not within policy.

And then even this year, Snipes has gotten in trouble because she accidentally mixed up some bad provisional ballots in with regular provisional ballots and has said basically she has no way of finding those dozen or so ballots that have been lost.

MARTIN: Real quick before I let you go, Miles, what's the latest on the governor's race?

PARKS: Yeah, Andrew Gillum has taken back his concession. He conceded on Tuesday night. He's taken that back. And he spoke at a church service yesterday where he said, we're not talking about new votes. We're not talking about miracle votes. We're not talking about votes out of thin air. We are talking about the people.

So you're seeing, again, on both sides, Democrats pushing for all votes to be counted while Republicans are really worried about voter fraud while not necessarily having evidence to support anything other than just bad election administration in a lot of places.

MARTIN: OK, Miles Parks, thanks so much.

PARKS: Thank you.


MARTIN: Michelle Obama has a new book out.

GREENE: She does. The former first lady's book is called "Becoming." It is out tomorrow, but excerpts have been leaking to the press already. And this is an intimate look at her thinking - like, for example, how she stopped even trying to smile during President Trump's inauguration.


GREENE: Our colleague at All Things Considered, Audie Cornish, spoke to Michelle Obama about her memoir.

MARTIN: Right, and Audie is with us now. Hey, Audie.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, guys.

MARTIN: So we know this is Michelle Obama's story, right? But it would have been difficult for her to write this book without giving us some glimpse into how she looks at the man who took her husband's place. What does she say about President Trump in this book?

CORNISH: She says candidate Trump put her family at risk promoting the conspiracy theories around Barack Obama's birth certificate. She said she'd never forgive him for that. She writes about her reaction to the leaked "Access Hollywood" audiotape of the president speaking disrespectfully of women. That kind of animated her involvement in the 2016 Clinton campaign, some of the big speeches she gave that we recognize now. And by the time the election came around, she writes in the book that she wondered why so many women voters rejected what she called an exceptionally qualified female candidate and instead chose a misogynist as their president.

MARTIN: So you asked her about the current political climate more broadly and, more specifically, about the belief among some Democrats that when Michelle Obama says, when they go low, we go high, that that's no longer the right strategy. What did she say about that?

CORNISH: She essentially doubled down on her words from before. Here's a clip of her.

MICHELLE OBAMA: What's the alternative? Are we all just going to go low? Are we all just going to be in the mud, kicking and screaming, wreaking havoc and fear? Is that the recommendation? I think we're living in a time that proves that point even more so.

CORNISH: In our interview, we went back and forth about this a couple times. And frankly, she never even used the president's name. You know, this is a person who's very reluctant to talk about politics, even as many people in the world of politics described her as the closer for her ability to kind of give speeches on behalf of Democrats and her husband. But from a young age, she is someone who didn't really like politics. She didn't expect to be in this world. So in that way, it's not all that surprising.

MARTIN: So that's the political stuff. But at its core, this is a deeply personal book, right?

CORNISH: Right. I mean, Barack Obama defined his biography - right? - in multiple memoirs. So much was written about him as the first African-American president. She felt like she was defined, in a lot of ways, by her experience on the campaign trail, in which sometimes she was demonized. She wasn't always - she says she wasn't always beloved. So this was her opportunity to tell her story, to define herself and to kind of give people a sense of how this woman from - this girl from the South Side could end up part of the first black family in the White House.

MARTIN: What else struck you about it?

CORNISH: You know, the section about her relationship with Barack Obama is actually written in a wry and funny way about what it's like to date this guy who's, like, a little bit weird...


CORNISH: ...And very ambitious. And she, as we've heard now, talks about, you know, having to go through IVF to conceive their children.


CORNISH: So she goes very personal in ways she hasn't before.

MARTIN: OK, you can hear Audie's full interview with the former first lady this afternoon on All Things Considered. It will also, of course, be available at npr.org. Audie, thanks.

CORNISH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "VELVET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.