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News Brief: Beirut Explosion, Missouri Primary Upset, Overseas COVID-19 Relief Checks

NOEL KING, HOST:

A massive explosion ripped through Beirut's waterfront area yesterday. It was felt for miles.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. Just to give you a sense, the AP reports that the explosion had the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake. People living on the island of Cyprus, which is 150 miles away in the Mediterranean, they felt it.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MARTIN: It was harrowing to watch if you saw this video circulating. Lebanese officials say highly explosive material was being stored at this warehouse on the waterfront and that the material wasn't being stored properly.

KING: Leila Molana-Allen is a correspondent for France 24. She lives less than a mile away from where the blast happened. Hi, Leila.

LEILA MOLANA-ALLEN: Hi.

KING: How are you doing this morning or today where you are?

MOLANA-ALLEN: I'm fine. I'm incredibly lucky. I was injured and my apartment was blown apart by the blast. I'm less than a mile, as you say, away from the port. I can see it from the step up by the apartment. But I was incredibly lucky. I happened to be away from the glass windows when it happened. And so the injury that I sustained was just a foot injury that I was able to get stitched up at the hospital this morning - many worse injuries, people around me.

KING: I understand that people have had trouble getting to doctors. I was reading reports yesterday about hospitals just being completely overcrowded. It sounds like things worked out OK for you though.

MOLANA-ALLEN: Well, the initial concern was almost immediately, and, you know, from the moment it happened, there were injuries everywhere. And what we were hearing was that hospitals were completely overburdened, hundreds of people turning up at local hospitals. They were saying please don't come if you don't need to, if it's not urgent. Lebanon also doesn't have its own ambulance service run by hospitals and the government. It's run - a volunteer service by the Lebanese Red Cross, and they were completely overwhelmed, too, saying please don't call us if it's not life threatening. They set up triage stations in downtown. And so those are up. You have flesh wounds that could wait, just tried to get hold of first-aid equipment and do what we could until things started to calm down in hospitals. I did eventually find a hospital outside of Beirut at about 3 a.m. that was quieter, and so I knew by going there, I wouldn't be blocking a space of somebody with a much more serious injury. And when I got there, they were obviously wonderful, and they'd been working eight hours treating hundreds of cases. They stitched up my foot, and they were telling me they had 300 people in this tiny little hospital in the mountains in just the last three hours who'd come in. They'd run out of many antibiotics, many of the things they need. They couldn't give out tetanus shots because they'd run out of those as well. Of course, that's what you need from all these debris injuries. They're running out of lots of quantities that they need. There were blood all over the sheets in the ER. They weren't able to replace them. They apologized. They were all really running dead on their feet and just without supplies that they needed.

KING: Leila, what are officials in Lebanon saying about what happened here?

MOLANA-ALLEN: So it was all very confusing yesterday. When it happened, I was in the flat and it sounded like a jet flying overhead, which is something we experience here fairly regularly, sounded like a jet flying very low overhead. And so when the explosion happened just a couple of seconds later and people had heard that loud thud, which we now think was the initial sound of that huge second explosion, everyone came running out thinking that it was an attack. It only emerged later that it now looks like it was this enormous amount of ammonia that was left in this area in the port ready to explode, essentially, when it was set fire. It'd been there for six years - incredibly dangerous material. And it looks like it was simply government ineptitude that left it there - people incredibly angry.

KING: There are going to be a lot of questions as we move forward. France 24 correspondent Leila Molana-Allen, thank you so much, and stay safe.

MOLANA-ALLEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Cori Bush is a Black Lives Matter activist, and she's a newcomer to politics.

MARTIN: Right. And in a Missouri Democratic primary held yesterday, Bush was up against a 20-year political veteran William Lacy Clay. Clay's dad had held the seat before him. Despite that long legacy - or maybe even because of it - Cori Bush pulled out a surprise win.

KING: Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio has been following this race. Hey, Jason. Good morning.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

KING: Tell me about Cori Bush. Who is she?

ROSENBAUM: Cori Bush is a single mother. She's a nurse. And this was her second time running against Lacy Clay. Her first campaign, she lost pretty soundly, but this time around, she had a lot more money. She had a much more disciplined campaign around her. And she also had the help of people like Jamaal Bowman, the New York congressman-elect, basically, who also unseated a longtime Democratic incumbent. This is especially notable, though, because in the case of Eliot Engel and Joseph Crowley, those were two white congressmen who were representing rapidly diversifying districts. This is a plurality African American district. And this was a defeat of a Black congressman by another Black candidate. This is just a seismic day for St. Louis politics.

KING: There are certainly echoes here of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What did Cori Bush say in her victory speech last night? Is she telegraphing the same kind of progressive values, progressive attitude, pushing the party forward?

ROSENBAUM: In her victory speech and in her campaign, she was supporting things that Ocasio-Cortez has talked about like the Green New Deal and "Medicare for All." But in this particular clip, she also talked about how the economic decline of St. Louis and also the pandemic may have affected people's attitudes toward this race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORI BUSH: As we face down unprecedented crises from COVID-19 to police brutality to out-of-control climate change, and we've decided how to move forward. Well, tonight, Missouri's first has decided that an incremental approach isn't going to work any longer.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No, it's not.

KING: What does this mean for a Democratic Party that is being pulled between these super progressive candidates, some of whom are now being elected, and more traditional Democrats? What do you think?

ROSENBAUM: Oh, I think that as I mentioned before, this is the first time that a Black incumbent has been defeated by the so-called justice Democrats. It's a big deal for St. Louis, too, because this will be the first time somebody named Clay hasn't represented the first congressional district in 52 years; as I said, seismic change in St. Louis.

KING: Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio, that is extraordinary. Thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

ROSENBAUM: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: OK. So remember back in June when we found out that there had been a big mistake with the COVID-19 stimulus checks? About $1.4 billion mistakenly went to people who were dead.

MARTIN: Right. So that alone - very big mistake. Now we've learned about another error. Stimulus checks were also sent to workers who are not American and actually live overseas. And we're talking about possibly tens of millions of dollars here.

KING: Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's Investigations team broke this story. Hi, Sacha.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: Who got checks that wasn't supposed to get checks?

PFEIFFER: These are often college students from Eastern Europe and South and Central America who do seasonal jobs in the U.S. like waiters, lifeguards, hotel housekeepers. I'll give you a real-life example. I spoke with a 24-year-old citizen of the Dominican Republic who worked in a grocery store on Cape Cod last summer. He's now back in the D.R. and to his great surprise got a $1,200 check. But he should not have received that money because he does not meet eligibility standards. Only U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents are eligible. Now, we're not identifying the Dominican man because he's afraid having gotten the money could put him at odds with the U.S. government. But here he is talking about other foreign workers who received payments even though they weren't eligible either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A couple of friends told me from the other countries, like Bulgarians, Jamaica, Colombians, also Montenegro, they get the money all citizens had (ph).

PFEIFFER: How many other people do you think you talk to who did this summer work like you who also got a check?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I can say that almost all get the money, almost all the people that I know, like a hundred.

KING: Like a hundred people that he knows got the money and should not have. How did this happen?

PFEIFFER: It seems to have happened because many foreign workers, whether accidentally or on purpose, file incorrect tax returns that make them appear to be U.S. residents. And some workers are now trying to give the checks back because they're concerned about jeopardizing a green card or visa or their ability to return to the U.S. In fact, one tax preparation firm told me it has clients from 129 countries who mistakenly received stimulus checks - Zimbabwe, Brazil, China, Nigeria, Vietnam, Nepal. That's just a sampling.

KING: How much money are we talking about?

PFEIFFER: The total amount is difficult to measure, but that same tax firm, Sprintax, did about 400 amended returns last year for people who mistakenly filed as U.S. residents. So far this year, it's done 5,000. That's almost 5% of the total federal tax returns it filed last year. And if just 5% of last year's more than 700,000 student and seasonal workers with F-1 and J-1 visas received a stimulus check in error, that would total $43 million.

KING: Oof (ph).

PFEIFFER: Yeah. Now, a lot of these workers are now back living in their home countries. So that's where they're spending the money. And even if they wanted to spend it in the U.S., the Trump administration put a freeze on foreign work visas. So that's preventing seasonal workers from coming here. I spoke with a Georgia attorney named Clayton Cartwright who specializes in immigration tax law. He said Congress was in panic mode in March as the U.S. economy was shutting down due to the pandemic, so it rushed stimulus funding out the door.

CLAYTON CARTWRIGHT: Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead, we've got to get the money out. So they just do it and live with the consequences.

KING: That does make sense. I mean, the country was in a panic when all of this happened. That's why checks also were sent to people who were deceased. I guess the big question, Sacha, is what can the IRS do about this now?

PFEIFFER: Right, exactly. You know, the IRS says nonresidents who mistakenly receive stimulus money should return it - kind of an honor system. But one tax specialist told me that if more stimulus gets distributed, which is as planned, some foreign workers who sent back their first $1,200 check will probably get a second one.

KING: Oh, dear. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer from our Investigations unit. Thanks, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.