All eyes are on the U.S. this week, where world leaders from 193 countries are gathered for the annual summit of the United Nationals General Assembly — a body President Donald Trump sharply criticized as a candidate for being inefficient and wasteful.
In his Tuesday speech to the summit, Mr. Trump avoided threats to cut funding to the U.N. (The U.S. contributes about 22 percent of the international body’s general budget, and Trump has said multiple times he doesn’t think the country is getting enough of a return on that investment). But he pledged to put America first, renewing his threats against a “wicked few” countries, including North Korea.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” the president said.
The remarks took many diplomats by surprise, while others worried they would “sound alarm bells in the region.” As Trump continues to meet with other world leaders at the U.N., here are five stories you may have overlooked.
1. Irma’s damage lingers on the U.S. Virgin Islands as locals brace for Hurricane Maria
Hurricane Irma raked through the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 6 with Category 5 winds of 150 mph that battered the tropical territory to near total destruction. Most media coverage focused on the storm’s impact on the Florida coast. But the islands of St. Thomas and St. John, two of the three main islands that make up the U.S. territory, received the full brunt of the storm.
St. John was the hardest hit, with lashing winds that tore off roofs and ripped down power lines. The once-green tropical vegetation turned brown as trees were stripped bare and debris filled the streets. Most of the island remains without electricity, and it is likely that power won’t be restored for months, the Washington Post reported. Four deaths have been reported across the islands, not including a man who died after being electrocuted last Tuesday while helping to restore power, the Associated Press reported.
Hotels suffered major damage, further hampering the recovery of the territory’s tourism-driven economy. “This means people aren’t getting incomes on top of already losing their homes. They’re not getting the paycheck that they so badly need to maybe evacuate to Puerto Rico or the mainland,” Jordyn Holman of Bloomberg told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff.
Thousands of locals and visitors stranded on the islands have evacuated since the storm. Pregnant women and children in particular have decided to leave, St. Thomas resident and former first lady of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cecile de Jongh, told the NewsHour. “What happens after a hurricane is usually you get a lot of mosquitoes because there’s a lot of standing water. So there is fear of Zika and dengue,” de Jongh said.
St. Croix fared better during the storm and, along with Puerto Rico, has been helping its sister islands by delivering supplies including food, water, diapers and baby formula on private boats. “Everyday private citizens have been heroic,” de Jongh added.
Why it’s important
The U.S. Virgin Islands has endured hurricanes before, including Hugo in 1989 and Marilyn in 1995, but none have been like this. And while local and federal authorities have worked around the clock on recovery efforts, “the bottom line is we’re getting tremendous help from our federal partners, but the U.S. Virgin Islands need help,” U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp told NPR.
President Trump issued a major disaster declaration for the islands on Sept. 7, allowing $223 million in emergency federal funding for relief efforts. Three days later, he authorized additional disaster assistance for recovery efforts, including debris removal. The president said he plans to visit the islands but a date has not yet been set.
But the long-term concern, says Rep. Stacey Plaskett, U.S. Virgin Islands’ delegate to the House of Representatives, is how the U.S. federal government will continue to respond. “We’ve had disparity of treatment before. We have not gotten the same support in the aid from federal government that the States have and so now it’s that fight to not be forgotten,” she told MSNBC.
Residents of the islands are U.S. citizens, but many feel excluded and fear that media coverage on the mainland does not depict the full extent of destruction on the islands, a problem compounded by the fact that internet and cellular service is limited on the islands, de Jongh said.
The islands are now bracing for the impact of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Dominica late Monday with Category 5 strength and is blamed for one death on the French island of Guadalupe. Maria is forecast to be catastrophic for the island of St. Croix with hurricane-force winds of category. The U.S. Virgin Islands was still facing 5 to 15 inches of rain, threatening flooding and mudslides, as the hurricane made its way toward Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Irma recovery efforts and distribution of supplies were put on hold Monday evening in preparation for the storm. “We are no longer in a recovery mode,” Gov. Mapp said in a news conference Sunday afternoon. “It’s protection and shelter from this point forward.”
2. Why is unrest continuing in St. Louis?
Authorities in St. Louis erected barricades at various locations downtown and around its police department weeks before a verdict in the murder trial of a former officer in the death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith was announced.
Activists had promised protests should the judge find the officer not guilty, but criticized the decision to erect the barricades, with at least one Ferguson demonstrator saying the move was a form of intimidation.
“Due to recent events around the country, we are being proactive in ensuring the safety of citizens,” the authorities said in a statement, defending the move.
The barriers highlighted the raised tensions between the community and the authorities and was a preamble to the protests — most peaceful, some violent — that did occur after a Missouri judge ruled that Jason Stockley, who is white, was not guilty in Smith’s death.
There have been dozens of arrests in the days since, along with reports of damaged businesses and injured police officers as a result of an unruly subgroup of protesters, as demonstrations have continued.
Why it’s important
As NewsHour’s Joshua Barajas wrote in a quick recap of Smith’s death, the original case predates the police killings of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two years later.
The latest not-guilty verdict “is the latest in a line of high-profile police shooting cases that have ended this summer with no convictions, despite video and audio evidence used by state prosecutors in the courtroom. Convictions in officer-involved shootings are rare,” he writes.
The Stockley trial is at least the fifth case in the country since this summer in which an officer was not convicted in a high-profile shooting. Last week, the Department of Justice also announced it wouldn’t bring federal civil rights charges against six Baltimore officers in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.
As protests continued, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who is white, was criticized by both protesters and the police department for not being supportive enough, The New York Times reported. But the mayor maintained that her measured approach to the unrest is best. “I do understand both sides of this road,” she said.
The unrest in St. Louis also follows Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision last week to “course correct” a volunteer-based program designed to help local police departments rebuild trust between their officers and the communities they swore to protect.
Sessions said in a statement that the restructuring of DOJ’s program for the Community Oriented Policing Services Office (COPS Office) will “ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”
As BuzzFeed News noted in its report, the COPS Office hasn’t issued any assessments for police departments that sought guidance on reforms since President Donald Trump has taken office. On the list of police departments who are due for a follow-up report: St. Louis County.
3. The homeless population increased by triple digits in some rural California counties
The homeless population in California has risen 15 percent in the past two years. It now stands at 135,139 — a record high for the state, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote last week, and the highest of any other place included in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s biennial homelessness count.
California has long had a problem with homelessness. But what’s catching officials by surprise is where exactly that population is booming.
Counties along the state’s Western border — rural, blue-collar communities where Californians have often sought refuge from the tech boom and the crippling cost of living that has come with it — saw as much as a 128 percent rise in homelessness over the past few years, according to last week’s analysis of preliminary HUD data by the Chronicle.
City and business leaders in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, whose issues with homelessness have been well-documented, have poured money into programs to get residents off the streets. Those places saw their homelessness populations stay stagnant or rise slightly (which, in many cases, still meant a double digit increase). But communities like El Dorado County, which saw a 122 percent increase in its homelessness population over the past two years, are starting from scratch, as metropolitan areas did a decade or more ago, Kevin Fagan and Alison Graham write. “Until recently, they left the heavy lifting for handling transients to nonprofits like churches and charities.”
Why it’s important
The rise in homeless individuals in California was sparked by a perfect storm of rising median rents and housing prices — which rose as much as 55 percent in the hardest-hit counties, according to the Chronicle analysis — and wages that can’t keep pace with inflation.
A third of renters spend more than half of their paychecks on rent, CalMatters explains in its exhaustive analysis of the state’s housing market. “Half the state’s households struggle to afford the roof over their heads. Homeownership — once a staple of the California dream — is at its lowest rate since World War II.”
While a Census report last week indicated the median income nationwide had reached an all-time high of $59,000 in 2016, that varies by place and among different populations. At $10.85 an hour, California has a higher minimum wage than many other states, but it buys less — about half what it did in 1980, one expert told the Chronicle. Meanwhile, the median home in California is 2.5 times more expensive than it is nationally, Matt Levin of CalMatters noted recently in the Detroit Press.
One of the biggest problems California faces is that there simply aren’t enough houses for the homeless, even if they connect with the help they need to get off the streets. State lawmakers passed a sweeping package of legislation Friday that, among other things, would subsidize rent for low-income housing and also ease restrictions to make it easier for builders to construct more affordable units.
Will it actually help? At this point, KPCC says, it’s too early to tell. But here are ways the new rules could make the problem better or worse.
4. The EPA plans to close its Houston Lab
The Environmental Protection Agency is set to close its Houston facility. But no one at the EPA has announced how, or even if, the lab will continue.
In an effort to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of reducing the EPA and cutting back staff by a quarter, the lab, which employs 50 people, will shut its doors in 2020 when the lease expires.
CNN reported that “a spokesperson who declined to speak on the record said the lab ‘is too big and is more space than EPA needs,’ and insisted the staffing level would remain the same wherever the new lab is located.” Yet the EPA recently offered buyouts to 12 employees at the lab, The Houston Chronicle reported, three of whom accepted.
The Houston EPA Region 6 environmental services lab is one of 10 regional labs and 37 total EPA labs. It serves a five state region including New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. It employs 50 people including hazardous waste inspectors, chemists and biologists, who focus on testing samples from Superfund sites, areas identified by the federal government as being contaminated with hazardous pollutants. Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, they have added testing water for the recovery effort to their docket.
Why it’s important
According to an internal agency memo first obtained by CNN, all headquarter and regional EPA offices across the country have been instructed to reduce their amount of leased space by the end of 2017. The reporting by CNN and The Houston Chronicle is one of the first signs some offices are actively working to meet that deadline.
The news of the planned closure in Houston comes on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, as staff are playing a key role in the long recovery from the storm.
With 13 Superfund sites in Harris County, many of which were flooded during the hurricane, scientists at the lab are being dispatched to test the air, soil, and water in the area for contaminants, advising people on when it is safe for them to return home. Closing the lab could mean that samples would need to be sent to other sites for testing. The closest such lab is 400 miles away in Ada, Oklahoma, which could hinder the EPA’s ability to respond to disasters in the Houston area. Another alternative could mean the testing is carried out by independent contractors.
Beyond Harvey, environmentalists are also concerned about what a closure could means for the Gulf Coast, which has a high concentration of petrochemical facilities — the highest in the country. It’s a heavy workload for one of the biggest areas of the country, and critics of the closure worry less lab space will hurt the ability of scientists to carry out their work.
5. It’s hard out here for a peach
It was a bad year to be a peach in Georgia.
The Peach State, which usually produces 30,000 to 40,000 tons of the juicy summer fruit a year, produced less than half of that, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture analyzed by FiveThirtyEight.
The culprit: A warm winter, which destroyed about 85 percent of the state’s peach crops.
Peaches “need cold like you need sleep, not just any sleep but dream-state sleep, the deeper and more sustained the better. This year, they did not get it,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote in interviews with farmers about what happened.
FiveThirtyEight pins the problem specifically on the winter’s lack of “chill hours,” the amount of time the temperature dipped below 45 degree fahrenheit. Last year, when the state produced more than 43,000 tons of peaches, the winter gave crops about 600 chill hours, according to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis. This year, peach trees and other crops only got 400 chill hours. But both are far below the historical average.
Why it’s important
This summer was bad for peach lovers. But it likely foreshadowed even more bad produce to come, particularly for fruit and nuts that also grow on trees, like cherries and almonds, FiveThirtyEight says:
“Farmers have always been at the mercy of the environment, but now agricultural catastrophes brought on by warm winters seem likely to occur with greater frequency.”
How well the sweet Georgia peach fares next year depends on the upcoming winter. You can see the full prediction here. (But be warned, fruit fans: you probably won’t like it).