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News brief: Hurricane Ian, Russia claims Ukrainian regions, Brazil's election

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hurricane Ian is not done yet. After devastating parts of Florida, it is on track to hit South Carolina today, although it's far weaker than the storm that came ashore near Fort Myers Wednesday.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yesterday, communities from Naples to St. Petersburg started to figure out just how much damage has been done. Insurance claims by homeowners and businesses are expected to be as high as 40 to $50 billion.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen visited some of the hardest-hit areas yesterday and joins us to talk about it. Hey, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Where is the damage the worst?

ALLEN: Well, Lee and Charlotte counties are the areas that were hit hardest by the storm. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was there to survey the damage yesterday. He called it indescribable.

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RON DESANTIS: To see a house just sitting in the middle of Estero Bay, literally must have gotten picked up, flown because of the massive wind speed and the storm surge.

ALLEN: The worst areas are the barrier islands that took the brunt of the storm surge. On Fort Myers Beach, houses were just wiped away, leaving only slabs behind. Boats were tossed around and piled up in the marinas and on land by the storm surge. On Sanibel Island, several sections of the community's only causeway were washed away. That leaves residents there without power or water and cut off from the mainland. But despite that, DeSantis says some residents have declined offers by rescue crews on Sanibel to get them to safety.

MARTIN: There were lots of people, though, who did need help, right?

ALLEN: Right. DeSantis said at least 700 people were rescued from flooded homes. The number may be even higher. In Charlotte County, the NPR crew saw standing water as much as 6-foot deep in some communities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We got the boats.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Woo-hoo (ph).

ALLEN: In North Port, that's the sound of a group of neighbors who were using small boats to ferry people, pets and possessions out of flooded homes. Craig Brown, his wife Kelly and son Jonas used their two kayaks to paddle themselves, their dog and their two cats to safety. Kelly Brown says when the Ian's storm surge hit, the neighborhood's canals flooded, bringing more than 3 foot of water into their home.

KELLY BROWN: It got to be about this much in the house, and then all of a sudden, it really started rushing in. So then we had to get out.

ALLEN: How did they get you out?

BROWN: If you have family or somebody that has a kayak, or some people are getting themselves out.

ALLEN: By the afternoon, a local crew had arrived to help people get to safety. But there are many stories like that and just so many thousands of homes that were flooded and damaged here.

MARTIN: Yeah. I was checking in with a friend of mine in Naples, and she sent a text to me saying, quote, "everything is a total loss." And these photos of her family's house, just destroyed, with all this flooding. I mean, and this story of personal loss and the ones you heard about thousands of times over, which is hard to absorb, but what about infrastructure, Greg? I imagine that's just been devastated, too.

ALLEN: Well, you know, it's interesting. It could have been worse, is kind of a bit of the sense. Driving through the area yesterday, it was surprising how most roads were largely clear of debris. Traffic was flowing on Interstate 75, which is a major artery. There are those two bridges out, one to Sanibel and one to another island. The Fort Myers Beach pier was destroyed. A major problem in Fort Myers area is the rupture of a major water main. But power is coming back here slowly. Over 2 million customers are still without power. But 200,000 customers got their service back yesterday in southwest Florida. Still, there are certain areas, like the barrier islands, where there was so much destruction the infrastructure will just have to be rebuilt up almost from the ground. And DeSantis says cellphone service should improve as phone companies bring in portable cell towers here.

MARTIN: Any word on fatalities?

ALLEN: No official word yet, although Governor DeSantis indicated one will be coming. Reports from local officials are bringing it to more than a dozen dead, a number that's likely to grow. There are a lot of concerns now about avoiding post-storm fatalities, things from improper use of generators, chainsaws and other accidents. In some past storms, those have accounted for more than people who died actually in the storm itself.

MARTIN: So be careful. NPR's Greg Allen in St. Petersburg. Thanks for your reporting, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. In a ceremony later today, the Kremlin says that Russian President Vladimir Putin will formally announce that he is annexing four territories from Ukraine.

FADEL: Yeah, and he's done this before in Ukraine - stage referendums, coerce people into voting yes and then claim that he's just giving the people what they want, to be Russian. It's illegal under international law, but that clearly was not a deterrent to Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, the fighting goes on. Today, Ukraine reported a missile attack in Zaporizhzhia that killed more than 20 people and wounded dozens more.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow, and he is also with us now. Charles, thanks for being here. First off, what is the protocol today for illegally annexing land that isn't yours?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, well, we know exactly because yesterday Putin's spokesman spelled it all out for us. Putin will summon lawmakers to St. George's Hall in the Kremlin today at 3 p.m., sharp. The Russian leader will then give what his spokesman called a voluminous speech and hold a signing ceremony admitting these territories into the Russian Federation, although that will require formal ratification later by the Parliament and Constitutional Court. Now, to set the stage, Putin last night recognized two of these territories, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as independent. The other two, Donetsk and Luhansk, were already recognized as such by Russia back in February.

So Putin's moving full steam ahead and capping it off with a party just off Red Square, where they've already put up a stage, a huge video screen, and there are banners that read Russia and these territories are now together forever.

MARTIN: I mean, he can say that as long as he wants, but that doesn't make it true. Ukraine has been making significant military gains in recent weeks, right?

MAYNES: Yeah, that's right. And remember; these referendum votes unfolded just as Putin gave an order to mobilize an additional 300,000 troops to hold the line against these Ukrainian advances. You know, the problem here is that the call-up hasn't gone well. It was supposed to involve just military reservists, but there have been countless stories of Russians with no military background being drafted. We've also seen thousands of Russian men fleeing for Russia's borders to avoid conscription. And just yesterday, Putin acknowledged something he rarely does - mistakes have been made. Let's listen.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says, amid mobilization, a lot of questions had come up about the wrong people being drafted, and he said, these mistakes needed to be fixed. And that just tells you that the Kremlin is clearly aware of a growing public backlash.

MARTIN: Right, and trying to recalibrate, which is not exactly a triumphant note ahead of what clearly the Kremlin is trying to frame as a triumphant day today. You know, yesterday we were talking, Charles, about Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Can you just talk for a second about how this annexation compares with that?

MAYNES: Sure. You know, everything we're witnessing really seems a repeat of what we saw in Crimea. You have these staged referendums giving a kind of veneer of legitimacy, followed by an annexation under this quasi-legal guise. And even though almost nobody recognizes Crimea as Russian territory today, most Russians see that annexation as historically justified, not to mention almost bloodless. The peninsula was taken in just a matter of days. That's clearly not the case this time around. You know, these annexations are taking place in an active war zone, lands not even completely held by Russian forces. And Putin has even resorted to veiled threats to use nuclear weapons to defend the new boundaries.

So barring the unforeseen, Putin will annexed these territories today, and state television will sell it as a triumph. But given what's been happening in the past couple of weeks - you know, with the counteroffensive of Ukraine, the problems with mobilization, the danger of nuclear escalation - you know, the question is whether Russians really think this is something worth celebrating.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes reporting from Moscow. Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

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MARTIN: In Brazil's election this weekend, two polar ideological opposites are vying for the presidency.

FADEL: On the far right is current president, Jair Bolsonaro, a brash nationalist who says he won't accept a loss because of fraud. There's no evidence of his claims of fraud. Bolsonaro is currently trailing in the polls to one of Latin America's most revered leftists, who is hoping to make a stunning political comeback after being jailed on corruption charges.

MARTIN: NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn joins us now from Rio de Janeiro. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Just to be extra clear, does Brazil have a problem with voter fraud?

KAHN: It does not. It has an electronic voting machine system that's been up and running since 1996 and hasn't had any major problems. But Bolsonaro has long criticized the machines, and he stepped up his attacks recently, as he's been stagnating in the polls. Many say he's taking a page from the playbook of his political ally, Donald Trump, by spreading these fraud rumors, even before the election. Bolsonaro told his supporters that they should prepare for war if he loses. That's a scary scenario since gun sales in Brazil have risen dramatically during his term, as he relaxed regulations.

MARTIN: Well, is that a real concern that there would be some kind of violence after the election, especially if Bolsonaro loses?

KAHN: Yes, there is concern. Bolsonaro is quite the provocateur. He can be impetuous. He loves to deride reporters, activists. He makes homophobic comments. And he has little regard for the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon has hit record levels during his term. He's a former army captain, and he still has close ties to the military. And Brazil has a history of military rule. The last one ended just in 1985. I spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon. He downplayed prospects of violence by Bolsonaro. Here's what he said.

THOMAS SHANNON: I mean, this guy is not going to go peacefully into the night. From my point of view, you know, Brazilian institutions are resilient, and they're strong.

KAHN: And he says the international community will come down hard on Bolsonaro, too, if there's any violence.

MARTIN: So his rival is the former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and he's doing well in the polls. Do you think he could win it in the first round of voting? Or is there likely to be a runoff?

KAHN: In some polls, da Silva is getting very close to the 50% mark needed to win outright on Sunday. There was just a big debate here last night that actually ended at 1 a.m. this morning. The debate was quite raucous, with Bolsonaro and da Silva devolving into insults at many points. Da Silva had been criticized in past debates for his lackluster performance, but he's put on more energy in this one. And he's 76 now and has a lot of negatives to overcome, too. He was jailed, like you said, for corruption, caught up in a huge scandal that also led to the impeachment of his political successor. Ultimately, that conviction was annulled, but many still don't trust him or his party. So he's moved to the center, trying to capture a wider vote base. So it will be close.

MARTIN: How is the U.S. watching this election?

KAHN: There are hundreds of thousands of Brazilians in the U.S. Eligible citizens can vote abroad, so interest is high. And the U.S. Senate just passed a resolution this week expressing support for Brazilian democracy and urging President Biden to reconsider a relationship with any government that might come to power illegally.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting from Rio. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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