New, Respected FEMA Chief Faces First Major Challenge With Hurricane Harvey

FEMA Director William “Brock” Long speaks during the National Governors Association’s meeting on July 15 in Providence, R.I. Hurricane Harvey is his first major test in this role, though he has years of emergency management experience.

Stephan Savoia/AP

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Stephan Savoia/AP

Hurricane Harvey is the first test of the Trump administration’s response to a natural disaster. And much of that responsibility falls on the shoulder of the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, William “Brock” Long.

Long was confirmed as FEMA administrator by the Senate in June, just a few months ago, but he is not exactly a stranger to the agency. He was a regional manager there during the George W. Bush administration, and he went on to serve as Alabama’s emergency management director.

“Top of the top”

His Trump administration colleague, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, gave Long a strong endorsement during a White House briefing Friday. “We couldn’t have picked a finer leader,” Bossert said. “He’s had state director experience; he’s had FEMA experience. He’s absolutely the top of the top.”

In Alabama, Long oversaw recovery efforts from tornadoes and the BP oil spill. Barry Scanlon, who worked at FEMA during the Clinton administration and is now a private consultant, says Long is well-regarded in the field.

“He’s got the relationships throughout emergency management, throughout the states,” Scanlon says. “He has the respect of the people who do this every day, which is vitally important.”

“Hazard amnesia”

Long, who was not available to be interviewed for this story, told the National Governors Association in July that his biggest concern as FEMA director was a lack of a “culture of preparedness.” People, he said, are just not as prepared as they need to be for a major storm.

“I believe in what I call ‘hazard amnesia,’ ” Long said. While there have been relatively recent disasters such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Matthew, “one of the things that keeps me up at night is this nation has not seen the devastation of a major land-falling hurricane since 2005. So sometimes I think we forget the worst.”

Citizens as first responders

FEMA’s role in a big storm like Harvey is to help prepare residents and position supplies, like bottled water and blankets and food, should they be needed. But it’s largely up to states and local government to be first responders.

In fact, Long believes that individual citizens are the real first responders. “We have to think about the way we train our citizens and refocus these programs to give them lifesaving skills,” Long said. That includes CPR and “how to shut off the water valves to your homes — how can they do simple search and rescue in their communities after these disasters?”

Long says government needs to take a comprehensive look at what it is asking citizens to do and “empower them to be a part of that response.”

While Long will be doing most of the management of the federal response, ultimately it is very likely President Trump who will get the blame or credit for how his administration deals with its first natural disaster. And he will be closely watched as he performs what Scanlon calls “the role of healer in chief.”

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Trump Signs Memo Implementing Ban On Transgender People In The Military

President Trump has signed a memo implementing his new policy on transgender people serving in the armed forces.

A senior White House official told reporters that no transgender individuals will be allowed the join the armed services unless and until the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security recommend otherwise.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are part of the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard, also covered by the new policy, is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The change in policy that would have allowed transgender people to serve openly had been announced by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter but never implemented.

The official also said the memo halts use of all Defense and Homeland Security resources for sex change surgery for those now serving. The only exception is for transgender service members already in treatment. This will become effective March 23, 2018, to give time for officials to develop an implementation policy.

The policy prohibiting transgender individuals serving in the military is restored by the memo. For transgender service members already serving, the memo directs the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security to determine what to do with them based on how their continued service affects military effectiveness, lethality, resources and unit cohesion.

The memo calls for an implementation plan to be submitted to the president by March 23, 2018.

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'Disjointed' Is Like Any Workplace Sitcom — Think 'Cheers,' With More Pot

Dougie Baldwin (left) and Aaron Moten are two of the stars in the new Netflix comedy Disjointed, which is set in a medical marijuana dispensary.

Patrick Wymore/Netflix

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Patrick Wymore/Netflix

Chuck Lorre is, without question, television’s sitcom king. He created three of today’s top money-making syndicated shows — How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men — and his other hits over the years include Dharma & Greg, Grace Under Fire, Mike & Molly and Mom.

So why did every single broadcast network turn down his latest sitcom?

One word: Cannabis.

Lorre’s new show, Disjointed, co-created with David Javerbaum, premieres Friday on Netflix. Kathy Bates stars as the proprietress of a medical marijuana dispensary.

The show’s Los Angeles set is a hippy-looking shop filled with psychedelic posters and glass cases displaying actual product. On a recent day of shooting a prop guy was handing out vape pens to the actors. “We’ll be vaping,” he says. “Vaaaaping.”

Waaaay too edgy for Lorre’s home network, CBS — even though he’s earned the company more than $1 billion with The Big Bang Theory,according to Deadline Hollywood.

“We didn’t even get a meeting out of it,” Lorre said during an interview at his production offices in Burbank. “We sent the script and got back: No.”

Lorre describes his latest show, Disjointed, as just a regular workplace comedy, with wacky customers and lovable employees. Think Cheers, he says.

“The fact that they’re smoking pot — if they were sitting at a bar in Boston drinking with Sam and Norm and Cliff — they’re still a surrogate family and people care about each other,” he says.

But the family tension in Disjointed is also more literal, deriving partly from the dynamic between Bates’ Earth mother character and her much more corporate son. He’s trying to convince her to build her pot dispensary into a national chain.

Disjointed hired a cannabis consultant to make sure the actors pretending to smoke on the show were doing so believably. Kathy Bates, above, says she didn’t need coaching.

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Patrick Wymore/Netflix

“The gold rush is on, and pretty soon, someone’s gonna become the Walmart of cannabis,” he coaxes. “Why not us?”

“Walmart is evil,” Bates’ character retorts (just before her son reminds her that she shops there herself.)

To ensure the accuracy of portraying this small, woman-owned business, Disjointed hired cannabis consultant Dina Browner. “Dr. Dina” runs a pot dispensary in West Hollywood.

“I am not a real doctor, but I am board certified by Snoop Dogg,” she jokes on the Disjointed set, where she helps select props, consults on set design and guides the actors on how to properly pretend to smoke weed. “They tend to hold the joints like cigarettes … I hate that,” she says.

Bates says she needed no such coaching; the subject matter is partly what drew her to the show. “I have chronic pain and have had my doctor give me a permit to have medical marijuana and it’s made such a difference to me,” she explains.

Lorre doesn’t use cannabis himself, but wryly offers that he’s “certainly had a great deal of experience with the various and sundry chemicals, both fermented and otherwise.”

It’s no secret that Lorre’s been in recovery for many years. He does not discuss it directly, but his shows do. His show Mom, for example, is about a pair of recovering addicts, a mother and daughter. When I ask Lorre how he feels about making a comedy about people using drugs, he replies: Why not do it?

“I don’t want to be the spokesperson for sobriety or intoxication, but I would like to be the spokesperson for things that I think are funny,” he says. “I discussed it with friends who I trust for their insight and perspective: Is it appropriate for me to do something like this? And the response was always: Why not? It’s funny.”

But … let’s be honest; pot humor isn’t always that funny unless you happen to be high.

“Pot humor can be slow,” acknowledges co-creator David Javerbaum. “It can very slow and it can be very arduous and that’s not gonna work with the rhythm of a multi-cam[era sitcom]. It’s gotta be fast.”

Javerbaum is a former head writer for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and the Broadway play An Act of God.Disjointed was entirely his idea. Javerbaum told NPR that he wants viewers to feel high when they watch it and it’s OK with him if most of the audience is actually stoned.

“I mean, people are watching Netflix stoned with or without our show,” he points out. “By the millions, I would imagine. If the only people who watch us are stoned people who watch Neflix, that’s an enormous audience. And that would be enough.”

Back on the Disjointed set, a director shouts out, “We’re rolling!” On this show, that could mean any number of things.

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Iron & Wine Returns To The Whispers And Hush On 'Beast Epic'

Iron & Wine’s new album is titled Beast Epic.

Kim Black/Courtesy of the artist

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Kim Black/Courtesy of the artist

In the 15-plus years since Sam Beam released his debut album as Iron & Wine, the singer-songwriter has added layer upon layer to his soft-spoken sound. Once a purveyor of whispered home recordings, Beam began collaborating with other bands and singers — Calexico first, followed later by Jesca Hoop and Band of Horses‘ Ben Bridwell — and expanding Iron & Wine’s increasingly dense approach in order to encompass intricate percussion and blaring horns.

With Beast Epic, Beam and his band go quiet again, scaling back the lavish orchestration while maintaining a sense of brightness and verve. It’s an album full of transitions — the singer himself chalks them up to “growing up after you’ve already grown up,” a concept familiar to anyone who’s lived long enough to employ the euphemism “midlife” — that appropriately synthesizes several eras of Iron & Wine’s music. The result feels clearer of head and heart, and less fatalistic, than Beam has ever sounded. And, in “Call It Dreaming,” it takes all of five words for the singer to sum up a truth that’s been central to Iron & Wine since the beginning: “Our music’s warmer than blood.”

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Four Steps That Could Cut Health Insurance Premiums And Boost Enrollment

The Senate health committee meets next month to discuss ways to stabilize the insurance markets. Insurers have until Sept. 27 to commit to selling policies on the ACA marketplaces.

Andrew Harnik/AP

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Andrew Harnik/AP

Congress and the Trump administration could boost insurance coverage by a couple million people and lower premiums by taking a few actions to stabilize the Affordable Care Act insurance markets, according to a new analysis by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

The paper, which lays out a simple blueprint for making insurance more affordable for more people while working within the current health law’s structure, comes just days before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee begins hearings on ways to stabilize markets in the short term.

“Together, these approaches could increase enrollment by roughly two million individuals, reduce average premiums by more than 20 percent and be roughly revenue neutral,” the analysis by Kurt Giesa and Peter Kaczmarek says.

The analysis concludes that under current law, about 17 million people will buy insurance in the individual market next year, many of them outside the ACA marketplaces. If the four actions outlined in the paper are implemented, about 19 million people would buy individual insurance, the study finds.

At the same time, the average monthly premium would fall from $486 to $384.

Some of the actions, including extending the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing subsidies, are already on the table for next month’s committee hearings.

These are the four steps that Oliver Wyman recommends to stabilize Obamacare.

1. Fund the cost-sharing reduction payments for the long term.

These are payments the government makes to insurance companies as reimbursement for discounts on copayments and deductibles the companies are required by law to give to low-income customers. President Trump has said he wants to end the payments – which a court has ruled are unlawful since Congress never authorized them. But now lawmakers, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the health committee, says he wants Congress to fund the payments through next year.

“State insurance commissioners have warned that abrupt cancellation of cost-sharing subsidies would cause premiums, copays and deductibles to increase and more insurance companies to leave the markets in 2018,” Alexander said in a statement on Aug. 16. “Congress now should pass balanced, bipartisan, limited legislation in September that will fund cost-sharing payments for 2018.”

2. Create a reinsurance program.

The ACA included a temporary reinsurance program which protected insurance companies from huge losses while they transitioned to the new market under the new law.

Senate Republicans included a reinsurance program in the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the health care overhaul that failed earlier this summer.

Governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado and John Kasich of Ohio are publicly advocating such a program.

“Top of our list would be this notion of having some sort of reinsurance to make sure the high-cost pool is not causing higher rates for all,” Hickenlooper said in an interview with Colorado Public Radio.

3. Strongly enforce the individual mandate.

President Trump has suggested he doesn’t want the Internal Revenue Service to enforce Obamacare’s requirement that every person have insurance. Today, individuals who can’t prove they own coverage have to pay a fine of $695 or more. Oliver Wyman’s analysis shows that if the mandate isn’t enforced, many young healthy people would drop their coverage.

“As younger and healthier people opt out of the market, the cost of coverage would increase, and market-average premiums would increase in parallel,” the study said.

4. Get rid of the health insurance tax.

Obamacare includes a tax on health insurance companies to help offset the costs of federal subsidies that help people buy policies on the ACA markets. It was in place from 2014 through 2016, but then Congress passed a moratorium on the levy for this year. Insurance companies are lobbying hard to ensure it doesn’t return next year. Oliver Wyman’s analysis shows that continuing that moratorium would cut premiums by about 3 percent next year.

Insurance companies have until Sept. 27 to commit to selling policies on the ACA marketplaces next year. Alexander says he wants some legislation to pass before then to help stabilize the markets and cut premiums.

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This Music Teacher Played His Saxophone While In Brain Surgery

After surgeons removed a tumor from Dan Fabbio’s brain, they gave him his saxophone — to see whether he’d retained his ability to play. A year after his surgery, Fabbio is back to work full time as a music teacher.

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YouTube/Screenshot by NPR

Dan Fabbio was 25 and working on a master’s degree in music education when he stopped being able to hear music in stereo. Music no longer felt the same to him.

When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he immediately worried about cancer. Fortunately, his tumor was benign. Unfortunately, it was located in a part of the brain known to be active when people listen to and make music.

Fabbio told his surgeon that music was the most important thing is his life. It was his passion as well as his profession.

His surgeon understood. He’s someone whose passion has been mapping the brain so he can help patients retain as much function as possible.

Dr. Web Pilcher, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and his colleague Brad Mahon, a cognitive neuroscientist, had developed a brain mapping program. Since 2011, they’ve used the program to treat all kinds of patients with brain tumors: mathematicians, lawyers, a bus driver, a furniture maker. Fabbio was their first musician.

The idea behind the program is to learn as much as possible about the patient’s life and the patient’s brain before surgery to minimize damage to it during the procedure.

“Removing a tumor from the brain can have significant consequences depending upon its location,” Pilcher says. “Both the tumor itself and the operation to remove it can damage tissue and disrupt communication between different parts of the brain.”

Ahead of Fabbio’s surgery, it was important to understand exactly what parts of his brain were responsible for his musical abilities. The team spent six months studying the functional and structural organization of Fabbio’s brain, Mahon tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

“We have a lot of experience mapping language in the left hemisphere,” Mahon says. “This was the first time we sought to map music … in the right hemisphere.”

Working with Elizabeth Marvin, a professor of music theory with the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, Mahon came up with a series of music tests for Fabbio.

They asked him to listen to piano melodies and hum them back while he underwent functional MRI scans. In between melodies, he listened to and repeated spoken sentences. The scans allowed the researchers to pinpoint the areas of Fabbio’s brain that are crucial for music and language processing. From those scans, they produced a three-dimensional map of Fabbio’s brain.

That map was a guide for Pilcher and his medical team during the surgery in July 2016. Fabbio was not only awake, but he once again performed the music and language tests, this time with his brain exposed. Marvin, who was in the operating room, scored those tests in real-time, helping the surgeons identify which areas to avoid.

University of Rochester Medical CenterYouTube

Once his tumor was removed, Fabbio was given his saxophone. Lying on his side, he played a song he’d prepared for that moment. Out of concern that the deep breaths required for long notes could cause his brain to protrude from his skull, Fabbio and Marvin had chosen a Korean folk song and modified it so he could use shorter, shallower breaths.

“He played it flawlessly, and when he finished, the entire operating room erupted in applause,” says Marvin. “It made you want to cry.”

As a musician, Fabbio had long had a remarkable talent: As he brushed his teeth with an electric toothbrush, he would hear in his head melodies that harmonized with the hum of the toothbrush. But that stopped happening when his tumor showed up.

Then one day, about a month after his brain surgery, Fabbio was brushing his teeth and suddenly, the harmonies returned.

“He realized at that point that his brain had recovered completely,” Pilcher says.

Fabbio’s case is described in detail in a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Justine Kenin, a producer for All Things Considered, contributed to this story.

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