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Think 2020's Disasters Are Wild? Experts See Worse In Future, SANDAG Audit Alleges Improper Severance Payments, Bonuses, Promotions, SDSU Researchers Trace Surge In Coronavirus Cases To South Dakota Motorcycle Rally

 September 10, 2020 at 11:03 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The impact of climate change in a record year for California wildfires and the drying that we're seeing across much of the Western United States has been boosted by climate warming. I'm Mark Sauer with Alison st. John. This is KPBS mid day edition, An audit raises questions about spending at SANDAG. This is a real power struggle that's brewing and SDSU researchers trace a surgeon COVID cases to a huge South Dakota motorcycle rally. Plus our summer music series highlights voices and musicians among San Diego's homeless that's ahead on mid day edition, Speaker 1: 01:01 Major wildfires are burning in Washington, Oregon, and here in California in San Diego County, more than 800 firefighters have battled the Valley fire South of Alpine. Since Saturday it's destroyed more than 50 structures and of this afternoon, it's more than 30% contained earlier this week, California, governor Gavin Newsome could not have been more clear and connecting the state's record, breaking wildfires to climate change. I have no patience. And I say this lovingly not as an ideolog, but as someone who prides himself on being open to argument, interested in evidence, but I quite literally have no patience for climate change. Deniers it's simply follows a completely inconsistent that point of view with the reality on the ground. Scientists have long predicted that wildfires in California and across the West will get worse as our climate warms. Joining me as part of coverage from the KPBS climate change desk is Dan Kay and a climate change researcher with Scripps institution of oceanography at UC San Diego. Speaker 1: 02:05 Welcome to midday edition. Thanks Mark. Well, almost two and a half million acres of land have burned in California so far this year, making it a record year, nearly 20 times. What had burned at this time last year. Can you explain to us what the link between these wildfires and climate changes? It's pretty basic, right? Climate change is exacerbating the vulnerability of forested and shrubland to wildfire, and of course fires are complicated processes. And in this case, in, in the recent year, we had essentially a abrupt shut off in the precipitation season sometime last February. And so a lot of our landscapes started to dry relatively early, and then we've not had any relief during the, the spring and period, coupled with some extraordinary heat waves, which we presume have been magnified by, by climate change. All of these ingredients, along with some kind of unusual ignitions in part of our California wildfire this year has, uh, had ma has made this a, you know, one for the record books, Speaker 2: 03:26 Scientists for years were hesitant to link a specific weather event like a particular wildfire or a heat wave or a flood to climate change. But why is that now possible? Why is it important to do so Speaker 1: 03:37 Well it's this attribution issue is still, is still complex. And I won't say that it's totally clear cut, but more and more as climate warming accumulates, it's pretty clear that parts of the landscape, a ratification, the drying that we're seeing across much of the Western United States has been boosted by climate warming. And we've seen since the late 1970s, we've seen increases in temperatures of probably a little more than a degree and climate models indicate that very likely that's the symptom of climate warming, anthropogenic climate change. Speaker 2: 04:29 Why is it important that we link these events? I mean, it's about messaging to the public, is it now? Speaker 1: 04:34 Yeah. Uh, it, that's certainly a key part of that. The answer, uh, is that, um, we, we need to be further vigilant. The other thing of course is that, uh, climate change is only going in one direction and making this attribution, um, means that we're going to have, uh, these sorts of problems in the future, uh, if not equal, but, uh, perhaps, uh, escalating from what we're seeing in the recent decade. Speaker 2: 05:10 Now we had record heat last weekend, across California, San Diego County. It hit 115 in Escondido, all time high there, and LA County broke its record. I reached 121 and Woodland Hills, uh, is this the new normal regarding summertime temperatures? You've talked about the direct link. This has declined. Speaker 1: 05:28 Okay. These events are, are somewhat ephemeral and they, they occur episodically. Uh, it doesn't mean that they're, we're gonna every summer C 115 degree temperatures and in our, um, inland valleys, but it does, uh, kind of raise the bar and in the future, it's, it's quite likely that we'll see events somewhat like this as we roll forward. The other thing about these, these heat waves that is really important in driving some of this wildfire issue is they're very broad scale. So we're seeing this warmth extend from the Pacific Northwest down to Southern California and beyond. And, uh, that means that some of these wildfire events are occurring across this whole region, which of course, spreads fire, fighting resources thin. The other thing is that it makes fighting fires like what we're seeing now in the Valley fire, uh, much, much harder because of the extreme heat. Speaker 1: 06:44 Oh, we've talked about extreme heat. The fire season is much longer. Now a lot of the effects that you're describing are related to climate change and state leaders and researchers note that 90% of wildfires are caused by humans. We've got 39 million people in the state. Aren't these fires inevitable. When you're talking about the wild land, urban interface, all the climate elements we've discussed and all these people doing activities every day. Yeah. I think there's a, of course ignitions are going to be hard to totally curtail I think, in the last decade or so there has been some success in quelling, some of this, particularly during very hot, dry and windy events. I think that most of the public is really on guard. Another aspect of this is, is the, uh, ignitions that are caused by, uh, infrastructure, including our utilities. And of course, they're really putting a full court press on trying to, uh, diminish the power line and so forth cause ignition. Speaker 1: 07:53 So I think we're making strides on that, but as you say, Mark, some of this is inevitable and of course that brings into, into play the fire fighting resources, which actually I think, um, are pretty impressive, uh, across, um, a lot of these landscapes. But, um, this is going to be a problem, especially in extreme weather events because it's, uh, it's really hard to, to contain fires when you got really hot and windy dry conditions going on. I've been speaking with Dan tan, the climate change researcher with Scripps institution of oceanography at UC San Diego. Thanks very much. Thanks Mark. Speaker 3: 08:49 The San Diego agency with perhaps the most responsibility to plan for a reduction in greenhouse gas is SANDAG Speaker 4: 08:56 The San Diego association of governments, but an audit of SANDAG threatens to give the public agency another black eye, just as it's trying to recover from a much bigger scandal involving inaccurate financial projections. The San Diego audit committee made up of elected leaders and members of the public is due to consider the audits findings at its meeting tomorrow. Joining us is KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen. Who's covering the story, Andrew. Thanks for coming. Speaker 5: 09:21 Yeah, thanks for having me, Alison. Speaker 4: 09:23 All right. So, so put this into context for us that the sum of money and question is around $400,000 and an agency that managed is billions in public money. Why is the outcome of the sort it's such a sensitive issue? Speaker 5: 09:36 Well, I think pet people tend to get very upset about any allegation of government misspending, even in amounts that are relatively small compared to an agency's total budget. So there's that certainly, um, sandbags work is really important. It's responsible for funding. A lot of the transportation infrastructure in the County, uh, including the widening of [inaudible] and North County that's underway the extension of the blue line trolley up to LA Jolla and university city. Um, and as you alluded to in your intro, the agency already went through a major scandal in 2016 at Sandy placed a sales tax measure on the ballot to fund more transportation projects. And it overestimated by billions of dollars, how much revenue that tax measure would bring in essentially allowing them to promise more projects than they knew they could ultimately deliver. And it turned out top officials knew about this error, but they didn't, uh, make it public before the election. And a later investigation found that a top officials also sought to hide documents relating to this error from the public. So most of the people involved in this scandal no longer work at SANDAG, but it's still absolutely a very big stain on the agency's record. Speaker 4: 10:47 Okay. So what exactly is being alleged? Speaker 5: 10:50 Well, the independent performance auditor or Mary coach smash Rob says that SANDAG gave severance payments to three top deputies when they resigned in July, 2019. And she argues that these payments should not have happened because at least on paper, these officials were leaving the agency voluntarily. Uh, although the assumption from most of us outside is that they were either pushed out or fired. Um, at the very least she says because of the size of the payments and because, uh, uh, you know, these officials were pretty high up in the agency. Um, she thinks that the management should have asked for board approval, uh, the approval of the board of directors. In addition, she kind of paints a picture of what I would say amounts to sloppy HR practices and sloppy record keeping. Um, for example, people being given raises or promotions or new job titles without a really robust documentation of a good performance in, you know, those standard performance. So, um, those were the crux of the allegations. Speaker 4: 11:56 What has the, Socrata said so far in his own defense? Yes. Speaker 5: 11:59 The executive director of SANDAG, uh Hassana Curata um, and sandbags lawyers say that these payments are well within the authority that was delegated to the executive director to that position by both the state legislature and the board of directors, uh, for many SANDAG board members, we should note it, this might be their third or their fourth job. So, um, they might be a part time city council member or mayor on top of a regular day job. And the work that they do at SANDAG involves a lot of complex decisions. So, um, the structure is set up to place a lot of trust and authority in the executive director, especially when it comes to these, um, staffing decisions day to day operations of the agency. It's just not feasible to assume that the board of directors could, uh, you know, uh, approve every little going on. Speaker 5: 12:51 That's kind of the, the response that we've heard from across. Uh, um, they also say that the auditor relied on flawed legal theories and, um, some outdated policies or manuals that are no longer in effect. And we should also note that management condition, uh, commissioned a legal review from an outside law firm that found that these payments were, uh, totally fine. And on top of that, um, because of the seriousness of the allegations and the sort of the tone of the audit, the audit committee, which oversees coach mush, Rob that the auditor and her staff, they also commissioned a legal review from another law firm, which basically came to the same conclusion. So those two legal reviews as essentially exonerating, uh, management in this case, clearly at least complicate the story of that. This audit is trying to tell Speaker 4: 13:42 When Hassana writer took over as the executive director, there was a definite feeling of cleaning house wasn't there in SANDAG. And some very prominent staffers who've been around for a long time were, uh, replaced. So was this kind of par for the course and an agency, you know, trying to change horses in mid Gallop as it were without getting into legal battles with long employees? Speaker 5: 14:05 Well, I think that would certainly be the argument of, of management that, and it's kind of how it looked at the time across ADA, uh, came into this agency, um, as it was recovering from this scandal, um, the scandal that ousted his predecessor, and he came in with an ambition to really shake things up and to force some tough conversations that he felt, um, SANDAG had been avoiding for many years. The agency has long been criticized from environmental groups, from equity groups that it just hasn't really taken seriously its responsibility under state law to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to improve transportation equity in the region. Um, so these three top staffers that left in the summer of last year were kind of seen as part the old guard, perhaps maybe they weren't on board with this new vision or this change in priority. And so, um, it's also worth noting that the severance packages came with a release of all claims against SANDAG and, uh, in the audit, there's this sort of narrative that they had some, uh, you know, unknown legal claim against SANDAG. And, um, and there might've been a threat of a lawsuit that management wanted to avoid, hence their decision to, um, just basically pay them this severance money and, uh, put it all behind them. Speaker 4: 15:27 Okay, you speak of this new vision, remind us what SANDAG and her Sonic Grotta is, is embarking on that makes this audit very important. Makes people sit up and pay attention to it. Speaker 5: 15:37 SANDAG is developing its next 30 year regional transportation plan and it's different than any other previous plan, uh, because it doesn't include a lot of the freeway widening projects that were in previous plans, uh, that is because it has to lower greenhouse gas emissions. And it's very well documented that freeway widenings tend to increase greenhouse gas emissions. It also involves a big investments in public transit, in a toll lanes and carpool lanes on the freeways. And a lot of people in North County, um, elected officials and voters are upset that some of those freeway projects aren't included here, there's also the issue of the estimated price tag of this plan, $177 billion, which is a lot more than the previous plan. And it would require voters to approve a tax measure, uh, presumably, um, and it would be very, a difficult argument for SANDAG to, um, make, uh, to voters saying that it can handle it. Can, you know, it can be trusted with your tax dollars to spend them wisely with these allegations kind of in the background. Speaker 4: 16:41 So what exactly will the send ag audit committee be doing on Friday? Speaker 5: 16:45 They will be reviewing the audits findings and basically discussing it. The auditor of Mary [inaudible] will have her opportunity to, um, make the case of, uh, you know, defend her, the things in her audit. Um, she's also said that, I mean, this is a real power struggle. That's brewing, she's accused management of, um, not really operating in good faith and, and releasing documents that, um, were not ultimately her final work product. So I think we could expect some sparks at the meeting and ultimately the audit should, uh, go through the full SANDAG board, um, and potentially with some recommendations for changes in the future. We know Speaker 4: 17:25 You'll be following this tomorrow, so thank you very much, Andrew. Thank you. Alison that's KPBS, Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Speaker 2: 17:38 This is KPBS mid day edition. I'm Mark Sauer with Alison st. John packing, hundreds of thousands of masculine revelers into a small town line with bars, a mid a global pandemic, like an ideal Petri dish in which to spread the virus. And that's exactly what happened a few weeks ago in Sturgis, South Dakota, an event that caused hundreds of thousands of new Corona virus cases in the U S that's, according to our report by San Diego state university's center for health economics and policy studies, Joseph Sabya director of the center and coauthor of that report joins me now welcome to midday edition. Thanks for having me. We'll start with the event itself. This is an annual festival attended by motorcycle riders from across the country, right? Speaker 6: 18:21 Yes, that's correct. This is in fact, the 80th Sturgis motorcycle rider. Speaker 2: 18:25 And what was the nature of this gathering? Why is it so ideal for this highly contagious Corona virus to spread? Speaker 6: 18:32 Sure. The centers for disease control and prevention has called large in-person gatherings of non-household members from outside of the local community, uh, that come together, uh, with minimal social distancing and mask wearing, uh, the highest risk for mass COVID-19 spread. And it seemed like the Sturgis motorcycle rally, uh, had all of these elements on steroids. In fact, uh, this was an event where nearly half a million individuals from all corners of the United States, uh, travel to a town of about 7,000 residents, uh, and spent the better part of 10 days to two weeks was the, was the length of the event, lots of frequent interactions. Um, and then they went home to their home counties. So this, this kind of event is what the CDC has been warning about in terms of a, of a super spreader event. Speaker 2: 19:34 So it's an ideal event for you to study now, what were the findings of your study about the spread of the virus at the Sturgis festival? Speaker 6: 19:41 Sure. So my colleagues and I were interested in sort of two questions first, what was the impact of this rally on the locals spread of, of COVID-19? So we first look at me the County, which houses, Sturgis, where most of these, uh, events happened. Uh, and we used anonymized cell phone data. And we first documented that during this 10 day to two week period of the Sturgis rally, that there was a huge increase in the number of non-resident pings in Sturgis from all of those who had traveled there to attend the event. Then we were also able to measure foot traffic at the Sturgis event to see what they did once they got there. And we saw huge increases in foot traffic in restaurants and bars in non-essential retail establishments in entertainment venues in hotels, in camp grounds and in need County. Uh, and in fact, in South Dakota in general, there are very few mitigation policies. Speaker 6: 20:41 There are no mass worrying mandates. There are no capacity constraints and indoor dining and restaurants and bars. Also, we found about a 100 to 200% increase in COVID-19 cases in Meade County. We then extended that analysis to look at border counties of Meade County. And we also found evidence of COVID-19 spread in those border counties. And then we looked at the state of South Dakota and found evidence that this motorcycle rally led to about a 35% increase in COVID-19 cases in the state of South Dakota. So that was our analysis of local spread. But, but, but the issue with this, uh, Sturgis motorcycle rally is that over 90% of attendees do not reside in South Dakota, they're coming from all corners of the United States. So we looked outside of the state of South Dakota at those counties that contributed relatively high inflows into the Sturgis rally. And we looked at the trends in COVID-19 cases of before and after of this event. And we compared the trends in COVID-19 cases in high-end flow counties. So those counties that did not send any residents into the Sturgis motorcycle rally. And what we found is that in high inflow counties, COVID-19 case rates increased by about seven to 12% substantial increases in COVID-19 making this event a super spread. Speaker 2: 22:06 Now, you also looked at Donald Trump's indoor rally and Tulsa and black lives matter protests and concluded. Those events did not contribute to a significant surge in COVID-19 cases. Why is that? What makes them different from the Sturgis event? Speaker 6: 22:21 A number of factors made the president's campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and black lives matter protests that have been occurring across, uh, cities in the United States, different from, from the Sturgis rally. Uh, one is that, uh, the, the, uh, participants in the, uh, president's Tulsa rally and in black lives matter protests have largely been local residents, uh, as compared to individuals from, uh, who attended the Sturgis rally coming from all corners of the United States, uh, which is an additional risk factor for a super spreading event when you have lots of people coming from outside the local community. So that's one, uh, the second is, uh, there were more mitigating, uh, activities taken by, uh, participants at those, uh, the Tulsa event and the black lives matter protest than at the Sturgis rally. Uh, for example, many probe, many of the black lives matter protesters, uh, did wear masks participating in the protest. Speaker 6: 23:16 Uh, moreover many of the cities in which those protests took place had much stronger mitigation policies employees, uh, then did, uh, Sturgis or South Dakota as a whole, uh, at the president's Tulsa rally. Uh, but there was probably less mitigation that might've been going on, uh, at the individual participant level as compared to the black lives matter protest of the temperatures of every individual who went to the bank of Oklahoma arena for that event was taken up prior to entry. You didn't see anything like that happen in Sturgis, but a third very important difference, uh, between these events is the way that local residents responded to the event in the cases of the president's rally and black lives matter protest. We found evidence that local residents responded to these events by increasing their stay at home behavior. In the case of Sturgis, we looked at what happened to stay at home behavior among local residents when that event took place. And in fact, we find evidence that that median hours spent at home actually declined, uh, when that event took place, that is local residents were all in participating in, in the Sturgis event. So that's another reason why we saw more COVID-19 spread with the Sturgis event as compared to the other two. Speaker 2: 24:35 And I should know your study has not been peer reviewed. There's been considerable pushback from officials in South Dakota and elsewhere over your findings. They say your report does not line up with what they know about the impact of the rally based on methods like contract tracing. And they also questioned the use of cell phone. Daddy, how do you, how do you respond to those criticisms Speaker 6: 24:55 In a world in which we had universal testing and contact tracing? Uh, we could rely entirely on, on numbers potentially that we, that we generated from such studies. Uh, but we don't. In fact, we get very small slices of the cases that we can attribute to particular events. Um, that's why we need other methods as well, to be able to document the full COVID case effects of swoop, super spreader events like the Sturgis rally and anonymize cell phone data is a useful tool for us to be able to measure individuals movements, and then be able to link a total COVID case growth from super spreader events to those events in a way that contract tracing, uh, cannot, uh, because it's not universal. Speaker 2: 25:48 I've been speaking with Joseph Sabya director of San Diego state university center for health economics and policy studies. Thanks very much. Thanks for having me Speaker 4: 26:06 For many parents of young children by far the most challenging thing about the pandemic has been how to manage childcare, the stress of coping with work and home life facing tough decisions every day about how to balance competing demands is leading to what some mental health professionals say is emerging as a mental health crisis with no end in sight. The childcare profession is itself in crisis. As centers struggled to stay open KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire tracer, a mother herself has been reporting on these issues. And tonight she's moderating a panel discussion. Claire joins us now with a preview. Welcome Claire. Thank you so much. So now this childcare is not just an issue you've been reporting on, is it it's affected you personally? What's your own experience that inspired you to cover it? Speaker 7: 26:50 Yes. Um, I mean, I'm a little ashamed to admit. I don't think that it's something that I would have initially thought of to cover. If I weren't dealing with it myself, I have a, he just turned three a couple of weeks ago. And, um, my son was in childcare until about mid March, along with most everyone else. Um, his childcare closed. And so then we were left trying to figure out, um, my husband and I both work. We've mostly been working from home, but as anyone with a three year old will tell you, it's pretty much impossible to get anything done well, while you have a three-year-old around. So, um, so, you know, we had to figure out how to navigate that. And we ended up pretty quickly, um, bringing in, uh, one of his teachers from, from his school who had close to help us out part of the time and then splitting up the time, the rest of the time. Speaker 7: 27:47 And now his school has been back open since about, um, since the beginning of August. So he's been back there and, um, so far so good, we made the decision to send him back. Um, but yes, yes, it was, it was definitely a relief, you know, it's also, um, it's just a tough decision to make when he was in preschool before, uh, he was sick about every week, pretty much. I think he would have three days where he would not have a runny nose and a cough, and then he would go back into it. So we were thinking, how are we going to send him back with this pandemic going on? But the school changed so much. Uh, the kids wear masks all day, which no one believes me, but they really actually do. Um, the teachers wear masks, obviously there's screenings before they go in. And so he's been back, you know, for a month and a half now, knock on wood. Hasn't even had a cold. So, so far so good. Um, you know, obviously things can not, can always change, but Speaker 4: 28:52 Very stressful. I mean, do you see that this is an issue affecting thousands of families, but it's sort of gotten lost. I'm all the other concerns with businesses like, you know, restaurants and hair salons and schools have been much more vocal about their problems, Speaker 7: 29:05 Right? Well, something that I've seen over and over again as covering this topic is having a young child is a temporary condition. So, you know, unless you have a kid under five, I don't think that you're much thinking about having a kid under five. Um, and so, and then the people who do have kids under five are just totally overwhelmed. Um, you know, dealing with trying to work, take care of their kids. So they're not really going to be out there lobbying or, you know, joining working groups or trying to influence decision. They're just trying to deal with their own lives and stay afloat. So it's something that, you know, doesn't really get any attention. Um, but obviously is hugely impacting the people who are in the midst of dealing with it. Speaker 4: 29:56 And in your reporting, have you found it's affecting more, some communities more than others? Speaker 7: 30:01 Yes, definitely. I mean, first of all, anyone who's an essential worker. They don't have the option to work from home. Uh, so if their childcare closed, they were scrambling to find another childcare. And in some of my reporting, I talked to people who worked at a restaurant. Um, and when the restaurants were initially closed, that was fine. She was home with her kids, but then they reopened restaurants, um, before her childcare open. So she was left trying to figure, figure that out. The other thing is that, um, when you look at the demographics of who works in childcare, it's almost exclusively women and a lot of women of color. And so then when you're worrying about, you know, people being out in working with kids and potentially getting sick, it's those same populations who are also more vulnerable to COVID-19 just generally across the board, as we've seen from, from all of the statistics. Speaker 4: 30:59 How do you think that all of the stressors and the changes will affect this generation of under fives and are growing up? Do you see them perhaps as being more resilient than the adults? Speaker 7: 31:09 Yeah. I think that in a lot of ways they are kids seem to just kind of accept things. Um, you know, my own son where he say, Oh, this is closed, this is closed. And he says, Oh, okay. But you know, it'll, it'll open some time. It's like, um, he, he just kind of takes things as they come. I think the thing that the medical professionals and parents and everyone are worried about is if this continues to go on just the lack of social socialization, um, if kids are continuing to be out of schools or just be at home or, you know, not be able to go out and play with other kids, um, what impact that will have. And, you know, I don't think we've ever had anything like this before. So we don't really know what, what impact it will have a year or two years down the line Speaker 4: 32:02 Could affect a whole generation, a lot to talk about on tonight's discussion, which is a free discussion online at seven o'clock. How can people participate Claire? Speaker 7: 32:11 Right. So it's a, it's a virtual panel. Um, you can sign up at Um, and we ask that you register in advance, uh, and you'll, you'll get a link to participate. We're going to have, um, an epidemiologist who also has a three year old. So she's kind of an expert in two different ways. Um, a woman from UC Berkeley who researches childcare and the childcare industry and a childcare provider and a parent. And so these experts Speaker 8: 32:40 Are going to be able to answer questions while I have a lot of time for audience questions, if they want to submit questions, um, I can pose them to the experts. And then we will have a discussion about this industry, which is, you know, um, changing and, uh, in, in a lot of trouble unless things change. I think Speaker 4: 32:58 I'm sure it'll be a great discussion. Thanks so much, Claire. Thank you. That's KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire tracer. You're listening to midday edition on KPBS. I'm Alison st. John with Mark sour out of tragedy comes triumph and transformational music. That could be the motto of San Diego's voices of our city choir. This summer, the entire nation got to meet this group of homeless musicians and singers who first assembled in a small church back in 2016 as contestants on America's got talent. The group has wild the judges and moved into the contest semifinals. But this summer has also brought sorrow for the group. Co-founder Nina Laelani daring died in a car crash in June. I made the highs and lows of recent months. The voices of city choir maintains its core inspiration, discovering that many people living on the streets are artists and musicians. Here is the voices of our city choir performing sounds of the sidewalk on America's got talent. [inaudible] Speaker 8: 34:57 That was the voices of our city choir performing sounds of the sidewalk on America's got talent, winning them a golden buzzer, sending them to the semifinals executive and creative director of the voices of our city choir. Steph Johnson joins us now. And Steph, welcome to midday edition. Thank you so much for reading. I'm so honored. You have me on today. Congratulations on making the semifinals for America's got talent. What was that like performing for a national audience? I'd have to say it's the most beautiful, surreal experience we've ever had. Speaker 4: 35:33 Um, you know, of course we're all going through this pandemic. Uh, we were, that started on Speaker 8: 35:38 The streets of San Diego. We never even had the intention of performing live. You know, it was just for us to come together and make music and be together. And the performing really has given our choir members so much confidence in and created this family dynamic that we go and do these events and gigs together and shows that they just it's a, it's an honor to get, to share our love with an audience. So now that experience is being done on this huge stage on for national television and America calls in and they vote and they vote for us. It's hard for me to not get emotional because it's just, it's so incredible. Oh, I can imagine. I mean, I think it chokes everybody up. Just, just listening to the choir. I'm wondering though, how did you practice for this experience, especially considering we're in the middle of a pandemic, the first audition we did, which garnered that golden buzzer that put us in the quarter finals. Speaker 8: 36:39 Um, that was one of the last performances that happened in Pasadena in front of a live audience. Right after that, we got all the quarantine homestay orders immediately. We went into putting all of our music programs online and then, uh, we realized a lot of our choir members lack technology and wifi. So then it turned into, you know, acquiring 75 laptops and distributing the laptops and making sure people had access to wifi and, and also had the training and had a tech support. But we've learned so much during this whole time. And the choir members learned all their parts via zoom. It was really incredible. Well, besides the pandemic, the choir also lost cofounder and choir director, Nina Dearing in a tragic car accident. How's everyone coping with that loss. It comes up all the time. Actually, we, uh, you know, the choir's grown, we now have about 250 members, uh, Nina and I started the choir together and 2016, some of those original choir members are still involved, but she was with the organization for the first two years. Speaker 8: 37:43 And she, for the people who met her and knew her, it has been a really tragic loss. And, um, we like to think that she's this angel and this omnipresent, you know, force that's with us when we're doing these amazing things, because I know it's beyond, it's beyond her dreams, but she always held this really big vision for, for the choir. So it's, she's with us and all these big moments for sure. Now voices of our city has already made a tremendous impact on the people. Who've heard the choir and in the lives of the unsheltered people here in San Diego, can you give us an idea of how the group has changed lives through this, you know, year after year of this kind of a commitment to each other, we've helped over 60 people move off the street. A lot of our choir members have reconnected family. Speaker 8: 38:36 A lot of choir members have chosen sobriety given up smoking cigarettes, um, choosing a healthier path, a healthier lifestyle, gone back to work. And a lot of our choir members, including our case manager and two members of our staff, they were unsheltered when we started the choir and they became part of the choir and now have have jobs as not only in their, you know, in their position, but they're like peer advocates. So it's people who would live to experience being there as a resource and connecting people to resources at their time at their pace. We're a constant presence. Even during the, even during the pandemic, we still partner with living water church downtown, and we've opened up, um, a five day week folk food distribution, um, hot meal, distribution clothing. Um, also we have a five day a week, uh, charging station, which is all run by choir members. It's just, um, it's a gateway and it's a, it's a, it's a path and a connection without any judgment and only just love and a friendship. You know, let's hear another song. We're going to hear voices of our city choir performing, thinking about love Speaker 6: 40:27 [inaudible] Speaker 8: 40:29 That was thinking about love, performed by voices of our city choir. And I'm speaking with the executive and creative director of voices of our city choir, Steph Johnson. What is the one thing that you would like people to see the next time they see someone on the streets of San Diego who was living unsheltered? What should we look for besides the fact, Oh, that's a homeless person? Well, I, I wish that everybody knew when they see a person who's experiencing homelessness, that that person didn't, they didn't do something to deserve to be there. There's, there's a series of events that happen sometimes that are completely out of our control and homelessness could happen to anybody. And if you're unable to feel that if you're unable to see that, then I think it's important to strengthen your, your own empathy in your own ability to put yourself in a person's shoes. Speaker 8: 41:32 And if a, as it, as an example of, you know, what what's going on, if a person is unsheltered for just a week or two, they are already suffering severe post traumatic stress. And, um, when you're in a struggle to survive, you know, not just where can you use the restroom and where can you get water? But people are, you know, you have to stay awake all night because people might steal your last belongings or they may attack you. Or if you're a woman, they may attack you physically sexually, and you have nothing in no way to protect yourself. If any of us experienced what an unsheltered person goes through every night, then I don't think homelessness would exist. I really don't. Now when you win, America's got talent. What are you going to do with the prize money? Well, I like the way you're thinking Marine. Speaker 8: 42:22 Um, I, I think that we would keep putting it into the organization for sure. I think that there's a need for us here and it continues to grow. And during COVID, we've found new ways to reach out to people. So we would just continue and put it, put it back in into all of the programs that we offer. I've been speaking with the executive and creative director of the voices of our city choir, Steph Johnson, who was a musician in her own. Right. And Steph, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us and thank you for what you do. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you. [inaudible] to see a video of the voices of our city choir performing go to music series and the choir performs on America's got talent next Tuesday, September 15th at eight o'clock on NBC. Yeah. Be sure to vote. [inaudible].

Freak natural disasters — most with what scientists say likely have a climate change link — seem to be everywhere in 2020. But experts say natural disasters could get worse in the future. Plus, an audit of SANDAG alleges problems with hiring, promotions and upper management’s compensation. And a new report by SDSU’s Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies estimates 260,000 COVID-19 cases are linked to a motorcycle rally in South Dakota. Also, a virtual KPBS event delves into childcare challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, the Voices of Our City Choir is featured on KPBS’ Summer Music Series.