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News brief: Britain's state funeral, Hurricane Fiona, Biden's comments on Taiwan

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just a short distance from where I am now at Buckingham Palace, hundreds of dignitaries have started to make their way inside Westminster Abbey for the funeral of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's the culmination of 10 days of national mourning in the U.K. And this is a global event, and it hosts not just members of the British royal family, but world leaders like President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.

MARTIN: And so many others. I am with NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Frank, you and I were out and about in the city just trying to take it all in. Should we say there's just a little bit of security presence? (Laughter).

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Good morning, Rachel. There is a lot of security. And it's very interesting trying to maneuver the streets because there are tens of thousands of people who are pouring in here, and in order to try to even find a view, people are scrambling. And it was interesting because I think around 7:30 in the morning, we passed an area around Hyde Park, where the queen's hearse will begin its journey up to Windsor Castle for her burial, and people were already lined up along the pedestrian barriers there.

MARTIN: Right. And we got a good view of Buckingham Palace. People all lined up there, carrying flowers to pay their respects. So just give us the play-by-play of what we expect to happen today. I mean, it's a very formalized set of events that we're going to see.

LANGFITT: Of course. Yeah, so the queen, of course, has - her body has been lying in state since the end of, you know, last week. And there - what is going to happen is that they will take her coffin from the houses of Parliament by a state gun carriage over to Westminster Abbey, which is, of course, just across the street. It's a cavernous cathedral which is already filling up with people right now, many dignitaries. There'll be an hourlong service. And then the casket will be carried up the Mall. This is a big boulevard that leads towards Buckingham Palace. It will take a turn around Buckingham Palace, really sort of her last goodbye to her most formal home here in London, and then as I was mentioning, in a hearse up to Windsor Castle, which is a beautiful town at a bend in the river on the Thames, where she'll be buried in St. George's Chapel.

MARTIN: You've been having conversations with people who have been out trying to pay their own respects. What have they been telling you?

LANGFITT: Well, I think this is incredibly meaningful for her and, I think, incredibly important. And one woman that we were talking to - her name is Joan Mitchell (ph). And she said that the queen had been a beacon of hope, and also, she was so proud to see so many people paying so much attention now to this and coming down today. Here's what she had to say.

JOAN MITCHELL: It makes you feel proud to be British. And at the moment, given things that have happened over the last few years, to not just us, the world itself, it's just nice to really feel proud.

MARTIN: To really feel proud - I mean, and that's a sentiment we hear a lot from people as they pay their respects. Although, you know, there was a counterpoint yesterday. I went to this music festival in South East London in a neighborhood called Peckham, and I talked to a lot of folks who were not going to come out today, haven't been queuing in line to pay their respects. There was one guy who didn't want us to use his name because he wanted to share this sentiment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's not my queen, yo (ph). It's the queen. It's not my queen.

MARTIN: He's originally from West Africa, and he points to Britain's history with colonialism as a reason that he didn't feel like he wanted to participate. Frank, lots of varied opinions, but still, the ceremony, so profound. The queen has been lying in state at Westminster Hall since Wednesday. And you got to be inside, right? What was it like?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it was really extraordinary. I got a half an hour in there, and I watched people walk through and - old men crying, people hugging each other and just having a moment to say goodbye to the only monarch that they've ever known and somebody who really was a symbol of this country for seven decades.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt. We are here reporting on the queen's funeral in London. Frank, thank you so much.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Now to Puerto Rico, which was thrashed by Hurricane Fiona over the past few hours. The Category 1 storm has caused an islandwide blackout, and massive amounts of rain are causing floods, landslides and what the island's governor describes as catastrophic damage in some communities. The eye of the storm has made its way offshore, but the impact could linger for days.

MARTIN: We're joined now by NPR's Adrian Florido, who is in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. Adrian, I understand the really - the eye of the storm passed through yesterday and overnight. Tell us just what happened. What was the devastation?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Yeah, Rachel. The extent of the damage is still not clear, in part because this storm is still dumping rain on parts of the island, meaning a real assessment of the destruction hasn't really started. But it is clear from government reports and also from videos and photos people are posting online that in a lot of communities, especially in rural areas, there's been massive flooding that has destroyed homes and other infrastructure. Listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING, YELLING)

FLORIDO: That is the sound of a metal bridge being torn apart and washed away by an overflowing river in the town of Utuado. And that bridge is reportedly only a couple of years old, built as part of the reconstruction from Hurricane Maria.

MARTIN: So, I mean, isn't the reconstruction from that hurricane, Hurricane Maria, supposed to have created infrastructure that was going to withstand storms like this?

FLORIDO: Absolutely, and that is a big question that is emerging here and that, I think, is going to be really scrutinized, as we start to get an even clearer sense of the damage from Fiona. Local and federal officials have been touting for years all that's being done to harden Puerto Rico's infrastructure in the five years since Hurricane Maria, and what we're seeing here is just how fragile Puerto Rico's infrastructure still is. We should point out that Fiona was a smaller storm and much less powerful than Maria was. Still, it caused a total blackout. The power is still off. I'm talking to you here in the dark. Billions of dollars have been allocated to strengthen the island by the U.S. Congress, but it's really been slow going. And Fiona is only going to set that reconstruction back even more.

MARTIN: I mean, have officials given you any estimates about when the power is going to come back on?

FLORIDO: They haven't given any estimates. What they did promise in a press conference last evening is that they are working to restore power to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. But they have been prioritizing critical sites like hospitals, which have been running on generator power. Yesterday, Governor Pedro Pierluisi said that he was hopeful of one thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEDRO PIERLUISI: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He said this power outage is not going to be like the one after Hurricane Maria five years ago, which left some communities without electricity for close to a year. He said he hopes that most of the grid will be restored within several days, maybe weeks. But again, he didn't make any promises. And he said a lot of that is going to depend on how much more damage the grid suffers as the storm exits the island.

MARTIN: Well, what does the weather report look like, Adrian?

FLORIDO: The storm is dumping rain on the Dominican Republic now. Forecasters say it's going to turn north, skirting the Bahamas and continue strengthening, potentially into a major hurricane, as it moves out over the Atlantic, toward Bermuda and away from the U.S. in the next few days.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Adrian Florido reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thank you so much, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: President Biden has once again said that the U.S. military would be called on to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China. In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," Biden gave the firmest commitment yet when asked if U.S. forces would defend the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes, if, in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.

FADEL: It's not the first time he's made a comment like this, but it takes on greater meaning as tensions between these two superpowers - China and the U.S. - have heightened in recent months.

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez with us this morning. Franco, what more did the president say to CBS?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: You know, Rachel, it was part of a lengthy interview that he gave to "60 Minutes" while he was at the Detroit Auto Show last week. I was actually on the trip. You know, they spoke about a number of topics, including inflation and U.S. support for Ukraine. But Biden made it clear that he saw things differently in regard to U.S. support for Taiwan than he did support for Ukraine, where, as we know, he's said repeatedly that U.S. forces would not fight Russian troops on Ukraine soil. You know, here's more of his discussion with "60 Minutes" host Scott Pelley.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

SCOTT PELLEY: So unlike Ukraine - to be clear, sir - U.S. forces, U.S. men and women, would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

BIDEN: Yes.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he was asked more than once about this, and he was pretty unequivocal.

MARTIN: But this has happened before, right? It's not the first time Biden's said the U.S. military would come to Taiwan's defense. And then every time he does it, the White House responds quickly, saying that this is not a reflection of a new policy. How is - how are White House staffers, I guess, responding to the president's remarks?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. It has happened several times. And the White House told me the same last night - very quickly, I'll add - that policy toward Taiwan hasn't changed. Officially, U.S. policy maintains diplomatic relations with China, rather than Taiwan, though there are obviously robust unofficial relations with Taiwan. You know, I will add that the Beijing government has responded. The Chinese foreign ministry said that China has lodged a formal complaint with the United States and also warned Washington against sending the wrong signals to what Beijing calls Taiwan independence separatists.

MARTIN: I mean, in a relationship like this, Franco, a geopolitical relationship, every word matters, every message, anything could be misinterpreted. What do you think is especially significant about what he said?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, for decades, the U.S. has officially maintained a, quote, "strategic ambiguity" policy toward Taiwan, keeping up friendly relations with the island without those formal diplomatic relations. But comments like Biden's send really confusing signals. And as we know, it keeps happening, stoking a lot of controversy and sharp responses from Beijing. It's also about the timing. Tensions between the two nations are at its highest in years. Beijing was angry and cut off some bilateral relations, including climate talks, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to the island. You know, it just is getting to a point where leaders have grown very worried about mistakes happening that could lead to things spiraling out of control.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much, Franco. We appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.