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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Shares of small regional banks regained some ground yesterday after falling sharply on Monday.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

But they're facing questions about their stability and fears that depositors will take their money elsewhere.

FADEL: NPR's David Gura joins us now to explain. Good morning.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: Hi, David. OK, so shares are regaining ground. The administration announced a major rescue plan, but people are still feeling skeptical of smaller banks. What's driving the fear?

GURA: Yeah, the twin failures of those two banks was so shocking that even after President Biden assured Americans on Monday morning the banking system is safe, many people are still being extra cautious. Denelle (ph) is one of them. She's a real estate agent in California. She asked us not to use her last name 'cause she's discussing her finances. And on Monday, Denelle was standing in line outside a First Republic Bank branch in Los Angeles. She was there waiting to withdraw most of her money. And Dannell told us she plans to move it to a larger bank where she believes it will be safer.

DENELLE: So I think just moving forward, maybe we'll always be, like, a little bit more diversified and a little bit more cautious about, you know, being with a smaller bank.

GURA: Now, no small regional bank wants to hear that, Leila.

FADEL: Yeah.

GURA: So right now they're working extremely hard to keep customers from going elsewhere. Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank were pretty unique. They had a large uninsured set of deposits, and they catered to very specific segments of the population. And I should say right now there is no indication any small bank is in trouble. But a bank analyst told me this is a show-me moment for banks. They're under pressure to show their investors and their customers that they're in good shape.

FADEL: So how do they do that? How are they making the case?

GURA: Bankers are taking a long, hard look at their balance sheets and how their money is invested. And some of them are trying to build up a buffer in case they were to face a bank run. First Republic, which is based in San Francisco, actually went to JPMorgan Chase, one of the big banks, over the weekend to line up financing just in case. Nathan Stovall is the head of financial institutions research at S&P Global Market Intelligence. And Stovall told me he expects many banks will want to keep more cash on hand. They're going to be more conservative going forward.

NATHAN STOVALL: I think you're going to see banks be a lot more cautious when it comes to making new loans right now 'cause the easiest way to preserve the cash you have is not lend it out.

GURA: Now, this week we've seen the heads of regional banks trying to push back against negative sentiment. They're reaching out to their customers directly, according to Rebeca Romero Rainey, who's the CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America. And Rainey says this is their message.

REBECA ROMERO RAINEY: Take a breath. Let's have a conversation. Let's focus on the facts.

GURA: And Leila, banks have some additional protection here. The Federal Reserve on Sunday made emergency funding available to other lenders just in case they get into trouble - good for them to have, but obviously a measure of last resort for banks because of the stigma that would likely come with tapping into that financing.

FADEL: So what could the long-term impact be on the banking landscape?

GURA: Well, we could see more consolidation of small regional banks. According to Nathan Stovall, there are about 4,500 of them in this country. But, you know, the majority of small business loans in the U.S. come from community banks, and banking with them appeals to a lot of people and to businesses because they're smaller. They're nearby. You can develop close relationships with individual bankers. And that's what these banks are trying to remind customers of as they face new scrutiny. I'll say lastly, there's likely to be more scrutiny of all banks. The former chair of the FDIC was on NPR yesterday, and Sheila Bair is calling for every bank to undergo stress tests, regular exams from regulators, Leila, to make sure that they'd be able to weather a crisis.

FADEL: NPR's David Gura. Thanks, David.

GURA: Leila, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: A Texas federal judge is hearing arguments this morning in a case that could limit access to a drug widely used for medication abortions.

PFEIFFER: That pill is part of a two-drug protocol that's often the most accessible option for people in states with abortion restrictions.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon is in Amarillo and joins us now. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So if you could just start by reminding us what this case is about and what's at stake here.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, it's about an abortion pill called mifepristone and whether or not the drug can stay on the market. It was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration more than 20 years ago. Major medical groups like the American Medical Association say it is conclusively safe and effective. But the drug has always been the subject of political debate, and medication abortion has become the dominant form of abortion in this country in recent years. So a coalition of groups who oppose abortion sued the FDA last year. They claim the drug was improperly approved. And they've asked a federal judge here in Amarillo, where this case was filed, to overturn the FDA approval.

FADEL: So really a lot at stake here in a closely watched case. What do we know about the judge who's overseeing it?

MCCAMMON: So his name is Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, and he has a lot of critics, and that is based on his track record. He was appointed by former President Donald Trump. He has long-standing ties to conservative religious groups. And his critics accused the anti-abortion group that filed this lawsuit of judge shopping. You know, a law professor I spoke to at the University of Texas, Austin, says that because of the way the federal courts work here, Leila, by filing in Amarillo, the plaintiffs were virtually assured of getting Judge Kacsmaryk assigned to the case.

FADEL: And what are you expecting to happen at the hearing today?

MCCAMMON: Well, this is all happening, first of all, after some big clashes over issues related to press access to the hearing.

FADEL: OK.

MCCAMMON: The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Judge Kacsmaryk had secretly scheduled the hearing but delayed announcing it publicly and that he told lawyers involved in the case to keep the details private. According to that report, he claimed that he was worried about protests and security. So a coalition of media groups objected to the delay on First Amendment grounds. The notice ultimately did get posted to the court's public docket on Monday, so just two days before the hearing. I should also say there will be no recording allowed in the courtroom. So, Leila, the effect of all of these rules and delays is that there will be very limited public access and very limited access for the press to these proceedings.

FADEL: Wow.

MCCAMMON: A court official told me this is a small courtroom, and members of the press will be allowed in until it's full, you know, with our notebooks and pretty much nothing else. And each side will have two hours to present their arguments.

FADEL: OK, so you found out on Monday, and then got on a plane yesterday, right? So hopefully you get in.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, that's the goal.

FADEL: So the judge will hear from both sides today. What's likely to happen next?

MCCAMMON: Well, Judge Kacsmaryk has a few options here, aside from, you know, just leaving the drug on the market. Mifepristone is subject to some additional FDA rules on top of typical prescription drugs. And the Biden administration pared back some of those rules in recent years. The judge could just put them back in place, for example, stopping the pills from being sent by mail, which became popular during the pandemic. Or he could order the FDA to take the drug off the market altogether. Now, whatever the judge does, Leila, will likely be appealed. And it's very possible that this case will end up before the Supreme Court.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon reporting from Amarillo, Texas, thank you so much. And I'm sure we'll hear more from you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Winter storms on both coasts have wreaked havoc in several states.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Attention, residents of Pajaro - time to evacuate. Water is coming.

PFEIFFER: A powerful nor'easter has swept through parts of the Northeast. It dumped heavy snow and caused power outages for hundreds of thousands of people, plus hazardous roads and school closures. In already rain-soaked California, a new storm there is just the latest in a series of extreme weather events that have battered that coast. Rain and wind knocked out power and flooded communities.

FADEL: Jerimiah Oetting of member station KAZU is in Monterey County, Calif., and he joins us now. Good morning.

JERIMIAH OETTING, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start with where you are, the Monterey Bay area. What are you seeing there?

OETTING: Well, there wasn't as much rain with this latest storm as we expected. And these storms have been relentless this year. This is the 11th atmospheric river to hit California so far this season. The bad news is there was a lot of wind. Up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the winds were gusting up to 97 miles an hour. That brought down a lot of trees, closed roads, caused power outages. And all of that is slowing down recovery from previous storms in places like the town of Pajaro. That's where a levee failed over the weekend, flooding the community and causing thousands to flee their homes. Power outages have really been a consistent theme of these storms here. Last weekend, there were over 35,000 residents in Monterey County without power for days, some even without cell service. So with all the wind, we're seeing some of those impacts continue.

FADEL: So really an unprecedented year, weatherwise, in California. How are other parts of the state doing?

OETTING: There are currently over 200,000 Californians without power. And again, that's largely due to wind. The National Weather Service had high wind warnings in the Bay Area, Sacramento Valley, the Sierra Foothills. And out in the Sierra Nevada, they've had a really historic snow year. But this most recent storm was warmer, so now there's rain on snow, and that's causing this huge snowpack that's accumulated in the mountains to really melt fast, which is bringing the risk of flooding to communities downstream. It also makes the snow heavier, which increases avalanche risk in mountain communities like Lake Tahoe. But despite all this, I think people are really feeling a sense of relief because the storm was just not as bad as expected.

FADEL: Especially after all that they've already seen. So how are people coping? What kind of help are they getting?

OETTING: Well, Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency for 40 of California's 58 counties. President Joe Biden, who's been visiting California recently, also issued a federal emergency declaration. And that opens up a lot of funds and resources and support to help these communities recover. Locally, here in Monterey County, the food bank has kicked into high gear. Some of the local hotels and - are offering discounts. The county has provided shelter options for the thousands of evacuees at this point. So all that happened here, but there were reports of this kind of volunteer and first responder work happening in other communities as well.

FADEL: What about the people who were forced to evacuate? You mentioned at least thousands in Monterey County. Any sense of when they'll be able to return to their homes?

OETTING: Well, we do have a break in the rain coming up, and that will help crews open up roads and reestablish power and really help a lot of people across California kind of clean up. But I will say for lower-income communities - like, small agricultural towns like Pajaro here in Monterey County - it really is a different story. After the aging levee failed, the whole town was underwater. And, you know, that levee was historically neglected. The federal government knew for decades it needed to be replaced.

FADEL: Wow.

OETTING: So now there's no word as to when it will be fixed. And officials are saying, you know, it could be months before these residents can return home.

FADEL: Jerimiah Oetting from member station KAZU in Monterey County. Thanks, Jerimiah.

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

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.