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Morning news brief

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The wildfires on the island of Maui are changing many people's lives.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hawaii's governor says the fast-moving fires that have killed at least 55 people have also destroyed hundreds of homes. We've been reporting this week on the fires that swept through a historic town and far beyond. Residents have to go somewhere in both the short and longer term.

MCCAMMON: Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman is following the story. Hi, Bill.

BILL DORMAN, BYLINE: Hi. Aloha, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So how are authorities helping the people who fled the fire zone?

DORMAN: Short term, the focus is on sheltering those who need it and trying to find the missing and connecting families. Also, basic supplies from water to fuel are becoming an issue. It's a story, as we've been saying all week, about the west side of Maui island. That's where people lost lives and where the most destruction is taking place. You know, the word devastation is one you keep hearing, and there's a profound sadness with all of these losses, but especially the loss of life. The governor says the burning of all these homes makes housing a priority.

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JOSH GREEN: We are going to need to house thousands of people. It's our intent to initially seek 2,000 rooms so that we can get housing for people. That will mean reaching out to all of our hotels and those in the community.

DORMAN: The governor asked people across the state that if you have space in your home, if you have the capacity to take someone in from West Maui, please do. The governor also spoke about President Biden issuing a federal disaster declaration for Hawaii. A lot of that money is going to be targeted at housing. It's a critical need.

MCCAMMON: So are some people having to leave the island entirely?

DORMAN: Yes. Those evacuations are continuing - buses moving people from West Maui to the main airport in Kahului, which is in the more central part of the island, and then the flights from there, whether those are tourists heading back to the continental United States or residents, many of whom are coming to Honolulu here on the island of Oahu. As for residents who remain, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen talked about that today.

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RICHARD BISSEN: I did want to also speak to the folks whose homes were not damaged. And I know the question on your mind is when can I get back to my home? Just as soon as we can try to provide the certainty that we have recovered those that have perished. That's our goal right now.

DORMAN: It's a grim goal. But as we move into Friday here in Hawaii, it's another painful day, and very difficult work is continuing.

MCCAMMON: Really grim. Is it possible that some people are still alive and stuck in the burning areas?

DORMAN: Possible - they could just be uncounted. You know, teams are working on this, but it's very difficult. Parts of West Maui are simply burned to the ground, especially in the town of Lahaina. Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said we have a scar on the face of Maui that's going to last a long time. And while it might sound relatively simple, the question of how many people are missing is just an excruciating one.

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JOHN PELLETIER: Honestly, we don't know. And here's the challenge - there is no power. There's no internet. There's no radio coverage. Our pack sets - we're having a hard time getting through on that.

DORMAN: There's challenges of communication, a big reason it's so difficult to nail down numbers - how many lives lost? How many buildings burned to the ground? And clearly, that's not the priority. There are people to help, needs to be met. And the people who did not survive need to be treated with respect.

MCCAMMON: Bill Dorman with Hawaii Public Radio. Thanks so much.

DORMAN: Thank you. Aloha.

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MCCAMMON: Should corporations and the people who run them be allowed to use bankruptcy court to avoid liability for allegations of wrongdoing?

INSKEEP: That's the question at the center of a case involving OxyContin and its maker, Purdue Pharma, and members of the Sackler family who own that company. The Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked the corporation's $6 billion bankruptcy agreement with its creditors. The deal would have shielded the Sacklers from lawsuits related to the opioid crisis.

MCCAMMON: Now the U.S. Supreme Court agreed late yesterday to review that controversial agreement. NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been following this story and joins us. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: This bankruptcy deal has been fought over in the courts for years now. A lot of people thought it was settled. Why is the Supreme Court intervening now?

MANN: Yeah, this bankruptcy deal was approved by a federal judge back in 2021, but it allowed members of the Sackler family, even though they're not bankrupt, to pay a big chunk of money in exchange for immunity from lawsuits. The Justice Department appealed, and so now the Supreme Court has agreed to look at one really specific legal question. Here's Lindsey Simon. She's a bankruptcy law expert at Emory University.

LINDSEY SIMON: It's not getting into the merits of whether the Sacklers deserve releases. It's strictly this idea of does the bankruptcy code give the court, the bankruptcy court, the power to confirm a plan like Purdue Pharma's plan that gives the Sacklers releases?

MANN: Justices are going to hear arguments on this in December, and until then, Sarah, none of the $6 billion in this proposed settlement will be paid out to opioid victims or communities.

MCCAMMON: Right, so no victims will get settlements until then. How are people harmed by these drugs responding to that?

MANN: You know, the overwhelming majority of opioid victims, people who suffered addiction or lost loved ones to OxyContin overdoses - they've backed this deal. You know, if it's upheld, they'll get $750 million in compensation. Communities that sued Purdue Pharma also support it. They're in line to receive billions. So really, the Justice Department is the last holdout here appealing this. And in legal briefs, the DOJ argued that if the Sacklers get away with this, it will serve and - I'm quoting here - it will serve as a road map for wealthy corporations and individuals to misuse the bankruptcy system.

MCCAMMON: And that's an important point. I mean, we do know that the Supreme Court, of course, sets precedent. What might this mean for other types of big bankruptcy cases?

MANN: Well, it could be huge. What's happened over the last decade is all kinds of wealthy companies and individuals accused of wrongdoing have done this. They've used the power of bankruptcy court to block lawsuits to limit their liability without ever having to actually file for bankruptcy. Critics, including the DOJ and many legal experts, say that's an effort to skirt accountability.

MCCAMMON: And, Brian, are there other examples of this? Have other big companies done this before?

MANN: Yeah, absolutely. We've been talking about the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma, but the Koch brothers, who are also billionaires, used a bankruptcy maneuver in an asbestos case. Johnson & Johnson, one of the richest corporations in the U.S., drew a lot of attention when they used bankruptcy to try to block tens of thousands of lawsuits linked to claims that its talc baby powder caused ovarian cancer. Lindsey Simon at Emory University says the Supreme Court is now going to settle once and for all whether bankruptcy courts were meant to wield this kind of power.

SIMON: It will be the decision that really sways whether these are even bankruptcy deals in the first place.

MANN: So this case is going to bring the Sacklers and the opioid crisis before the Supreme Court at a time when tens of thousands of people are still dying from overdoses every year. But the outcome could affect a whole lot of bankruptcy cases ranging from product safety lawsuits to environmental claims and even sexual assault cases.

MCCAMMON: Lots at stake there. That's NPR's Brian Mann. Thanks so much, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Sarah.

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MCCAMMON: Tensions are rising between Poland and a Russian ally on its border, Belarus.

INSKEEP: Leaders in Warsaw plan to send another 10,000 Polish troops to that border. Poland is a NATO ally and a vital friend of neighboring Ukraine. Supplies and weapons pass through Poland to support Ukraine's defense against Russia. Now, Polish officials think Russia could be sending trouble their way. Fighters from Russia's Wagner Group are stationed in Belarus, and Poland is worried they could destabilize NATO's eastern flank.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin to talk about it. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: This seems like a dangerous military escalation in a region very close, of course, to Russia's war in Ukraine. What's going on here?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, this latest flare-up began last month when Wagner soldiers were relocated to Belarus. Poland's government said Wagner might send its soldiers into Poland and neighboring Lithuania. Then a little over a week ago, Poland accused Belarus of violating its airspace by sending military helicopters across the border. And now we've got this.

MCCAMMON: Poland has been deploying troops to the border for some time, hasn't it?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right. This 250-mile border between Belarus and Poland has been tense for a couple of years. In 2021, the government of Belarus began handing out visas to migrants from mostly the Middle East and Africa. And soldiers in Belarus were assisting these migrants across the border into Poland, as well as into neighboring Latvia and Lithuania. All of these are EU member states. And that prompted Poland to mobilize troops and build a steel border fence. This was all part of an effort by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to destabilize Europe, and it appears his efforts are ongoing. Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said this week that he has had to, quote, "restrain" Wagner fighters who want to attack Poland.

MCCAMMON: So the big question, Rob - I mean, based on your reporting, what can you say about the likelihood of an escalation between Poland and Belarus?

SCHMITZ: Well, more troops certainly makes it likelier. I mean, when he announced this troop bill, the Polish defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, said Poland is preparing for different scenarios. Here's what he said.

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MARIUSZ BLASZCZAK: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Sarah, he's saying here that this troop buildup is meant to scare away what he calls the aggressor, or Belarus, and to ensure that Belarus does not attack Poland. It's worth noting here that the military of Belarus issued a warning to Poland this week, telling Polish citizens that they should stop their government from starting a new war. So there's a lot of rhetoric on both sides of the border.

MCCAMMON: Is there any truth to that claim?

SCHMITZ: You know, well, this troop buildup comes two days after Poland's president kicked off the official election campaign for the ruling party, which is up for reelection in mid-October. And critics point out that while the threat from Belarus and Russia is very real, the ruling right-wing party of Poland is going into an election here, and it needs all the votes it can get. And many observers say this party is not above pumping up threats like this border escalation to accomplish that. So between the election season in Poland and efforts from Belarus and Russia to sow chaos in Poland, what's real and what's bluster has sort of become difficult to parse out. But what is clear is that with more troops along this already fraught border, the potential for danger is going up.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz, joining us from Berlin. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.