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News Brief: Death Toll In California, Democrats In The House And Florida Recount


The sheriff in Butte County, Calif., delivered some sobering news. He says more than 600 people are missing in the wildfire there.


That is a lot higher than the number of missing we'd heard before. Could be that some are safe and just out of touch for now. Others may be added to the list of dead, which stood overnight at 63.

GREENE: All right. Reporter Frank Morris has been on the ground in Chico, Calif., which is not far from Paradise, the community devastated by that fire. He joins us on the line.

Hi there, Frank.


GREENE: So this number of missing, I mean, has jumped up astonishingly high - I mean, at more than 600 people. Why the sudden increase from the sheriff's department?

MORRIS: Well, it's the counting, basically. The sheriff's department, law enforcement's going through records collected at the height of this crisis, when people were calling in like crazy - 911, missing persons reports. They're going back through those and tallying them up. And that's why you saw the number go up, you know, 501 people yesterday. Again, you know, a lot of those people probably don't know they're being looked for. Others, in this case, more - sort of an abnormally high number of them might be found dead.

But people are coming out of the woodwork all the time. And I spoke with this gal, Laura Whitaker (ph). She was really ecstatic when I spoke with her. She'd just heard from a friend who had escaped the fire narrowly, just took off without her phone and kept driving - went all the way to San Francisco, found a place to stay and didn't think to call to tell her friends that she was OK.

LAURA WHITAKER: I said, I love you. I love you. I love you. And when you get back here, I am going to hold on to you, and I will never let you go. Don't you ever do this again. But great news.

MORRIS: Yeah, Whitaker's house was burned down to the ground except the wood stove.

GREENE: Wow. That is just the sound of relief that I think so many families are just hoping for and desperate for right now. You know, I was just up there with you reporting on this. And, I mean, even in Chico, it's like you sometimes have to wear a face mask because there's so much smoke. I mean, you can just feel the sense of this fire everywhere.

MORRIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, the smoke is, you know, sort of omnipresent, just hanging in the air. It kind of, you know, traps the light and makes it smudgy. So it's this - almost reminds you - the way you'd expect winter in Dickensonian (ph) London to look like. Plus, I think it makes the cold colder. So it's just doubly dark and doubly cold - really nasty - and apparently some of the worst air quality anywhere in the world.

GREENE: So President Trump is expected to visit the region Saturday. Are people talking about that, even thinking about that and thinking about politics?

MORRIS: Well, I don't know. If you ask them about it, you know, you get a - sort of a spectrum of responses. Some people who you might expect to be sort of harsh on the president say they'll take any help that they can get. But I spoke with another couple of people - you know, Trump supporters, who said that they had kind of turned on Trump after he insulted the state after the disaster. This is Maggie Misaire Crowder (ph). She's sitting outside of her tent with her husband.

MAGGIE CROWDER: I hear Trump might be coming around. (Laughter) I was a Trump fan. I thought he was a good man and a good ruler. I did. But now I'm just kind of having second thoughts. If you can - when people are in a crisis, and you're going to cut them down?

GREENE: You said you were talking to her; she's in a tent. And that's where a lot of people are sleeping right now. There's that Walmart parking lot in Chico and elsewhere, people just - who evacuated, finding a place to sleep.

MORRIS: Yeah, yeah. That is a crazy community that is just flooded - you know, been flooded with people and really taken off. So - but now it's going to shut down as of Sunday at 1.

GREENE: OK, so that'll cause a lot of questions for people and where they can go sleep, which is going to be one of the big questions going forward. Reporter Frank Morris in Chico, Calif. Frank, thanks a lot.

MORRIS: You bet, David.


GREENE: All right. Congress had orientation this week.

INSKEEP: Yeah. There will be something over 35 House Democrats - new Democrats, really new. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is 29, says that during orientation, she kept getting directed to the events for spouses and interns. Well, here's a part of the orientation that's not quite finished. Which leader will Democrats orient toward?

GREENE: A big question going forward for the party, and NPR's congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is here.

Hi, Kelsey.


GREENE: All right. So Nancy Pelosi - does she have the votes to become speaker again?

SNELL: Well, it's kind of complicated at this moment to know exactly where things stand. The big question for her will come up the week after Thanksgiving, when there will be this internal vote. And it may wind up being a private internal vote to figure out whether or not enough Democrats will support her before a big floor vote in January, that big one where everybody has to stand up and say who they're supporting. So the dynamics right now is that about 17 people, kind of initially led by some moderates, tell me that they are - have a letter circulating that could oppose Pelosi. So 17 people may not seem like a lot of people to oppose, you know, a leader...

GREENE: Right.

SNELL: ...In a group 231 Democrats. But the key here is that vote in January, when they will need 218 votes to elect a speaker. And right now 17 is enough to get in her way. But it's not entirely clear who all those 17 people are and whether or not they'll stick together once they start wheeling and dealing over things like putting people on committees or offering them other things they may want in the future.

GREENE: And is that why the first vote takes place behind closed doors, so some of that wheeling and dealing can happen before it happens on the floor?

SNELL: Yeah, that's a little bit of why it happens. And also, you know, if you talk to Pelosi loyalists, they say this is where she shines, right? She's a - she is a dealmaker. And they seem pretty confident that she'll get these people on her side. But when I talk to the people organizing that 17 group that's circulating the letter, they tell me they think they've got more people that will sign on once people aren't so scared and once they feel like they have the actual power to topple Pelosi.

GREENE: Can I ask you, Kelsey - it seems like a good number of Pelosi's critics are male. Is there a gender dynamic playing out in this whole conversation?

SNELL: Well, Pelosi has noticed that too, and it came up in her press conference that she has. She has a weekly press conference with reporters. And somebody asked her if she thought that this sexism was at play. And she said she doesn't like to play the gender card. But then she said this.


NANCY PELOSI: If, in fact, there is any misogyny involved in it, it's their problem, not mine.

GREENE: Wow, tough words.

SNELL: (Laughter) Yeah, she says that she feels like there is sexism at play here and that it is mostly men who are organizing against her. And she says she is confident that she has the support of women in her party.

GREENE: So this young new roster of Democrats coming in, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who's been getting a lot of attention. She's talking about a Green New Deal. I mean, are there policy questions that might be at play here in challenging Pelosi? Or is this really about sort of the person you want at the top of the party?

SNELL: There - there is a little bit of policy at play here, definitely - not just style. The issue of climate change is something that they are definitely pushing. And there's also the question of investigations and impeachment to come.

GREENE: Many questions for the Democratic Party as we head into next year. Congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey, we appreciate it.

SNELL: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. So Florida is done with a machine recount of more than 8 million ballots - but not done.


GREENE: They're not done done.

INSKEEP: No, not at all because state officials have ordered a hand recount in a Senate race because it is just that close as defined by law. Governor Rick Scott of the Republican Party holds the narrowest of leads against Bill Nelson, the Democrat who is the incumbent. Still no confirmed governor either because election results are not yet certified. But in that race, Republican Ron DeSantis has a wide enough margin to avoid the manual recount. And he has declared victory. His rival, Andrew Gillum, says he's going to fight the results in court.

GREENE: NPR's Miles Parks is in Tallahassee, Fla. And why think about a tight race, one, when you can think about more than one, Miles? You're covering a number of races here. But the hand recount, what is - what is the deal with that right now?

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I think it's important to note what it's not at the outset, David.


PARKS: What it's not is people actually looking at all 8 million ballots that were cast in Florida in this election. Basically...

GREENE: That would take awhile.

PARKS: That would take a long time. But this process actually is supposedly going to take less time than the machine recount did. Basically, each county has now sorted out the ballots their scanners were unable to read. These are scan - these are ballots that either were left blank, had stray markings that weren't clear or a voter voted for more than one candidate.

And people - not machines - are now going to look at those ballots and try to determine if there was voter intent. This sounds incredibly subjective, but it's important to note that Florida law actually has a 15-page document that kind of lays out a bunch of possible markings and how they should be judged.

GREENE: Oh, interesting. OK. So it's not, like, just looking at a ballot and saying, well, I think this person might have wanted this candidate.

PARKS: No, there's - yeah, there's a document. And it has, like, circles and squares and how you should mark it.

GREENE: So remind us. This hand recount is only for the Senate race. There's also the governor's race that's still in question. Help us sort this out.

PARKS: Yeah, so we actually saw very little change when we got the results of the machine recount for both the Senate and the governor's race. There's still a tight margin in the Senate race. It's about 0.15 of a percentage point between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott. The governor's race also did not move much.

Republican Ron DeSantis leads to Democrat Andrew Gillum by about 0.41 percent. We still have not seen Gillum concede again, though. He conceded on election night but then retracted that concession. But this margin in the governor's race was not even large enough to trigger that hand recount.

GREENE: And aren't there some other legal challenges and court cases happening as well around all this?

PARKS: Yeah, there's quite a few lawsuits circling this case at this point. I spent much of yesterday in U.S. District Judge Mark Walker's courtroom. He was saying he was working on about 3 1/2 hours' sleep and planned there - planned to be at the courthouse until midnight last night working.

The one ruling we're watching for the most is this case where Democrats had asked for the - for the deadline to be actually extended for the recount process because Palm Beach was taking so long to complete it. But the judge yesterday seemed unlikely to grant that extension since it looks like Palm Beach is going to meet Sunday's official results deadline for the Senate race. But we expect the judge to issue orders on a number of cases at some point today.

GREENE: OK, Miles, we should say you're in a long line of fine journalists who have spent a lot of time in Florida covering unresolved elections (laughter). Are they going to ever fix all this?

PARKS: I can't guarantee it's going to be fixed tomorrow. But I think Florida's under the microscope, and they're definitely taking notice.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Miles Parks in Tallahassee. Miles, thanks.

PARKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELTRON 3030'S "BATTLE SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.