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News brief: Mariupol evacuation, Buffalo shooting, baby formula agreement

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Ukrainian defense of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol has apparently stalled.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had been barricaded inside of this steel plant. They have now been evacuated to Russian-held territory. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the U.N. and the International Red Cross helped.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys. Among them are the seriously wounded. They're being provided with medical aid. I want to emphasize - Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now from central Ukraine is NPR's Joanna Kakissis. Joanna, so what do we know about the situation at the steel plant?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So A, we know that about 260 soldiers have left the shelters and tunnels under the plant. Fifty-three of those soldiers are seriously injured. The Ukrainians confirm that these soldiers arrived at a medical facility in a Russian-occupied town. The rest of the soldiers, the remaining soldiers, are in another occupied town. And remember, there are also many soldiers still inside the plant. We don't know what the timeline is to get them out. President Zelenskyy has said that the work to bring the guys home is continuing and it requires delicacy and time.

MARTINEZ: How did all of this happen? I mean, is it a negotiated surrender, a cease-fire, something else?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, you know, we don't know because the details are still pretty murky. But we have been speaking to a soldier inside Azovstal. He texted us about an hour ago. And he said, you know, I'm soon going to be without a phone or connection. So here's the deal. We're being evacuated into captivity and we're going into a prison. And that - you know, Russian media reports are describing this as a surrender and that the soldiers are, indeed, going to be interrogated today just like prisoners. The Ukrainians, however, won't use that word, surrender. They insist that these soldiers will come home as part of a prisoner swap with Russia. And, you know, the spouses of the soldiers are just terrified. We spoke this morning to one of the spouses, Yaroslava Ivantsova. Her husband is Nikolai. They've been married for 30 years. She sent us the last voice memo from her husband. She got it on Sunday. And he recorded it on a friend's phone after a major bombing by Russian troops.

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NIKOLAI: (Through interpreter) Honey, my phone, I don't have it. All was lost in the fire. Everything is burned. I barely made it out alive. We were in a place that took a direct hit. Many were killed.

KAKISSIS: And she says she's gotten, you know, third-hand information that he is alive. But, you know, she hasn't heard directly from him, so she's just waiting.

MARTINEZ: Wow. The defense of this plant in Mariupol has really been a rallying cry for Ukrainians for a while now. How are people reacting to the decision to give up the defense?

KAKISSIS: So you know, Ukrainians are trying to paint the defense of Mariupol as a victory because it lasted for 80 days. And it tied up Russian troops that could have been used farther east. But, you know, this latest news also gives Russia a victory because controlling all of the port city of Mariupol gives them the territory to build a Russian-controlled passage from Crimea to the eastern territories in Ukraine it already controls. So the rest of Ukraine, they've been really quiet about this latest news. To them, the Azovstal soldiers are heroes. But the spouses of the soldiers, you know, they just want clarity. They want to know, you know, will our loved ones come home and when?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Joanna Kakissis. Thanks a lot, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Turning to Buffalo now, where families of the shooting victims are remembering the loved ones they lost.

MARTIN: Authorities are investigating the racist attack that killed 10 people, injured three others. President Biden and the first lady are headed to Buffalo today.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Joe Hernandez is there now. Joe, the grief has got to be heartbreaking there right now. What are you hearing from the relatives of those who were killed?

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Yeah. I was at a press conference yesterday with the family of one of the victims, Ruth Whitfield. She was an 86-year-old Black woman who'd just come from visiting her husband in a nursing home up the road. And her son, Darnell Whitfield, who's also a former Buffalo fire commissioner, spoke about his mother.

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DARNELL WHITFIELD: We're not just hurting, we're angry. We're mad. This shouldn't have happened. We do our best to be good citizens, to be good people. We believe in God. We trust Him. We treat people with decency. And we love even our enemies.

HERNANDEZ: Lots of anguish there. The Whitfield siblings hadn't even told their father about the shooting yet. They called for some changes and hired well-known civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who promised an investigation and possible legal action.

MARTINEZ: What do the people that live there have to say about this Black neighborhood being targeted on Buffalo's east side?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. I mean, they're angry that there was this white supremacist who came into their neighborhood and attacked them specifically. This store is kind of a hub in the neighborhood. It's a predominantly Black neighborhood. And it's got a rich Black history. I talked to Pastor Tim Newkirk, who works with GYC Ministries. And he told me it's famous for a lot of things, actually, including the first Buffalo Bills Stadium, as well as historic theaters and libraries.

TIM NEWKIRK: It's just so much rich history. So for him to pick this community was pretty much designed because this is the melting pot, you know? We have thriving banks, restaurants, barbershops, you know, the fish market. This is a history that is preserved.

HERNANDEZ: Newkirk said the community was actually already forgiving the shooter and growing closer in the aftermath. And it really goes beyond the neighborhood. I mean, it seems like the whole city is feeling this. Buffalo is called the city of good neighbors. So a lot of people talk about it as a really tight-knit community for a city of its size.

MARTINEZ: The alleged shooter, Payton Gendron, what more do we know about him?

HERNANDEZ: Law enforcement official said yesterday that he visited the supermarket in March. And they also said that he was there on Friday, the day before the shooting. So there aren't many other details beyond that. The investigation is ongoing. Authorities are looking at the document he wrote, as well as still collecting evidence inside the supermarket with the help of the FBI. Gendron is also scheduled for a felony court hearing on Thursday.

MARTINEZ: President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, they're supposed to be in Buffalo visiting today. What can we expect to hear from them?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. A White House official says the president will visit the Tops supermarket memorial site. And he'll also meet with family members of the victims, as well as law enforcement officials and first responders. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said it's going to be a pretty meaningful visit for the city.

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BYRON BROWN: The fact that the president is coming here shows how seriously he takes the issue of availability of guns, mass shootings, hate speech and the things that we are dealing with out of this tragedy.

HERNANDEZ: So the president is going to make remarks, called the shooting an act of terrorism. And he'll also call on Congress to pass new gun laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or people with mental illnesses that make them a danger to the public.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Joe Hernandez in Buffalo. Joe, thanks a lot.

HERNANDEZ: You got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: All right. Relief may be on the way for parents anxiously coping with a national shortage of infant formula.

MARTIN: Yeah. One of the nation's largest manufacturers of baby formula, Abbott, has now reached a deal with the FDA to get this Michigan factory up and running again. The company had issued a recall and shut the plant down back in February after some babies who drank the formula from that plant got sick. But also worth noting, supply chain and other policy issues that predate the recall also caused the shortage.

MARTINEZ: Here to tell us more is POLITICO's food and agriculture reporter Meredith Lee. Meredith, what has the FDA decided to do about the formula shortage and that factory in Michigan?

MEREDITH LEE: The FDA says Abbott has, quote, "agreed to take corrective actions" as part of this deal to reopen a key infant formula plant in Michigan. That includes stricter requirements for testing products and also notifying the FDA of any future contamination. The federal government, as part of the agreement, also said infant formula products at the Michigan Abbott plant were, quote, "adulterated" because they were made under insanitary conditions. And they violated current good manufacturing practices. Supply chain issues are also contributing to the shortages we're seeing today. Biden administration officials say they're working with retailers and manufacturers to move infant formula to parts of the U.S. with the most severe shortages.

MARTINEZ: What else is the FDA doing to try and help ease the shortage?

LEE: The FDA announced new efforts to ease some of its incredibly strict import restrictions on formula from overseas. Ninety-eight percent of all infant formula purchased in the United States is made here. But that's become an issue as the market has grown increasingly consolidated over the years. Abbott is now one of only four major companies that dominate the U.S. infant formula market. And as we've seen, any disruption to one company or one plant can drive the kinds of shortages that we're seeing now. So administration officials say allowing more formula into the U.S. on a short-term basis can help fill these supply gaps. But that process will take weeks.

MARTINEZ: Take weeks, OK. Now, how is the Biden administration responding to the shortage?

LEE: The White House and FDA say they're continuing to work with formula manufacturers and retailers to boost U.S. production and work through supply issues. They said addressing the shortages is a top priority for the president. The one thing I will note is that the White House isn't being very forthcoming about the timeline for its response. The White House press secretary told reporters yesterday that the administration had been working on this 24/7 since February. But my POLITICO colleague reported that a whistleblower flagged food safety violation concerns about this Abbott plant to senior FDA officials back in October. So the process has been slow so far. Last night, I asked a senior administration official when the FDA told the White House about any issues regarding this Abbott plant and any concerns about potential shortages. But the official said they wouldn't comment on internal communications.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. The thing every parent probably wants to know is, how long will it take for the supply to just return back to normal and expect to see formula back on shelves?

LEE: Right. Abbott says after FDA approval, the company could restart the Michigan plant within two weeks. And formula could be back on shelves in 6 to 8 weeks. Administration officials have said it could take months for any Abbott formula from the plant to reach consumers. In the meantime, government officials are working with the three other formula companies to boost supplies.

MARTINEZ: All right. Meredith Lee of POLITICO. Thanks a lot.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.