Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: August 16, 2021

Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, Haiti's earthquake death toll rises above 1,200, and more


Afghanistan falls to Taliban

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday as Taliban forces took the capital city of Kabul, toppling the government. "If I stayed there, countless countrymen would have been martyred and Kabul city would also have faced destruction," Ghani said. Afghan security forces put up no resistance as the Islamist insurgents reached Kabul following a sweep through city after city in the last week. The Taliban reversed a call for their forces not to enter the capital until an interim government was formed, sending their fighters in to "prevent chaos and looting" after Afghan police abandoned their posts. Five people died Monday at the chaotic Kabul airport, as Afghans tried to escape and U.S. troops guarded a massive effort to evacuate embassy personnel and other Americans.


Haiti earthquake death toll rises to at least 1,297

The death toll from Haiti's 7.2-magnitude Saturday earthquake rose to 1,297 on Sunday, the impoverished Caribbean nation's Civil Protection Agency said via Twitter. People on Haiti's devastated southwestern peninsula struggled to get food, medicines, and other basic supplies. Rescuers rushed to reach survivors as Tropical Depression Grace threatened the area with heavy rains that could cause mudslides and flooding. Most of the worst damage was in the provincial cities of Jeremie and Les Cayes, where thousands of homes, a multistory hotel, and some medical facilities were destroyed, mirroring the catastrophic damage from the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that wrecked much of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, in 2010. The latest disaster came weeks after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, deepening the country's political turmoil.


Trudeau calls snap election in Canada

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday called a snap national election for Sept. 20, hoping to win back majority control of the country's House of Commons. Trudeau rose to power in 2015 but has led with a minority government since October 2019. The next scheduled election was October 2023, but Trudeau successfully requested that Governor General Mary Simon, Queen Elizabeth II's representative in Canada, dissolve Parliament, setting the stage for an early election. "Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better...," Trudeau said. "The decisions that your government makes now will define the future that your children and grandchildren grow up in."


Fred strengthens as it approaches Florida panhandle

Tropical Storm Fred strengthened over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday ahead of its expected Monday evening landfall somewhere along the Florida panhandle. Tropical storm warnings were in effect from Navarre to the Wakulla-Jefferson County line. The storm's top sustained winds were 50 miles per hour early Monday, well below hurricane strength. The system, which regained tropical storm status on Sunday, sent scattered thunderstorms across parts of Florida over the weekend. Fred was expected to dump up to a half-foot of rain in some areas as it hits the shore, with potential for flash flooding in some low-lying inland areas. Coastal areas could face damage from storm surge, particularly at high tide.


Texas Supreme Court temporary blocks local mask mandates

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday upheld Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order barring local jurisdictions from imposing mask mandates, temporarily blocking face-covering requirements in Dallas and Bexar counties intended to help counter a surge of coronavirus infections driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. Appeals courts last week ruled that Bexar County's policy for public schools and Dallas' broader mask mandate were permissible, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 the governor could act as "commander in chief" over state disaster response. "Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ... local officials that the Governor's order stands," said Paxton, a Republican. Abbott, also a Republican, tweeted that anyone wishing to wear a mask could do so.


Biden administration to increase food stamp benefits

The Biden administration is expected to announce Monday the largest permanent increase to food assistance benefits in history. Under the new rules, which will take effect in October, average food-stamp benefits will increase by more than 25 percent over pre-pandemic levels, rising by $36 to $121 monthly per person. All 42 million beneficiaries will receive more. The changes don't need approval from Congress. Unlike other new spending intended to help people weather the coronavirus pandemic, these added benefits are intended to last indefinitely. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the program provided a safety net, and its $79 billion annual cost helps "stabilize our democracy." 


New N.Y. governor backs mask mandates for students

New York's incoming governor, Kathy Hochul, said on Sunday that she supported mask mandates for schoolchildren to help fight a surge of coronavirus infections driven by the highly infectious Delta variant. "I'm willing to speak to our legislative leaders and to take whatever action I need to protect people," Hochul said on CNN's State of the Union. Hochul said she believed mandatory mask-wearing was necessary for the safety of children, teachers, school administrators, and the wider community, although she said she would be flexible as circumstances changed. She said she would work closely with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a sharp contrast with the position of recently resigned Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who often clashed with de Blasio.


Dixie Fire threatens thousands more California homes

The largest of 100 wildfires burning across a dozen states in the West threatened thousands of Northern California homes on Sunday. The month-old Dixie Fire was fueled by wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour over the weekend, as thunderstorms generated high winds and lightning strikes but little rain. "We're definitely still dealing with the possibility of lightning. Winds are all over the place. Things are going to be pretty unstable for the next couple days," said fire spokesman Edwin Zuniga. About 21,000 federal firefighters are battling the blazes, more than double the number sent to contain forest fires last summer, said Anthony Scardina, a deputy forester for the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region.


China factory output slows, threatening global recovery 

China on Monday reported that factory output and retail sales growth slowed sharply in July, fueling concerns that surging coronavirus infections were threatening the global economic recovery. Industrial production in China, the world's second largest economy, rose by 6.4 percent in July compared to a year earlier, according to data from Beijing's National Bureau of Statistics released Monday. Analysts had predicted a 7.8 percent increase, after June's 8.3 percent rise. Retail sales rose by 8.5 percent, falling far short of the expected 11.5 percent increase. Retail sales jumped by 12.1 percent in June. Although China's economy is back to pre-pandemic levels, businesses now face supply bottlenecks and new coronavirus restrictions.


Federer says knee surgery will sideline him for 'many months'

Tennis star Roger Federer on Sunday withdrew from the U.S. Open, saying he expected to be out for "many months" after deciding to have a third surgery on his right knee. The 20-time Grand Slam champion, who just turned 40, is tied with Rafael Nadal, 35, and Novak Djokovic, 34, for the most Grand Slam singles titles ever in men's tennis. Federer indicated that his return to competition was not certain, but that the operation was his only "glimmer of hope" to return. "I'll be on crutches for many weeks and also out of the game for many months, so it's going to be difficult … But at the same time, I know it's the right thing to do because I want to be healthy," he said.


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