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Around The World, Cities Plan For Extreme Weather


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. It is a summer of extremes: fires, heat, strong winds and now what's likely the worst drought in a generation. Well, according to many meteorologists and climatologists, get used it. They say such extreme weather events will only get worse as the globe continues to warm.

With this in mind, many cities are starting to prepare. We'll speak with local officials who are rethinking infrastructure, landscaping, food safety and more. What is your city doing to prepare for extreme weather? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Marketplace's David Brancaccio joins us to talk about his new documentary, "Fixing the Future." But first, Karen Weigert joins us from her office in Chicago. She's chief sustainability officer for the city of Chicago, and thanks so much for joining us.

KAREN WEIGERT: It's a pleasure, thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: We're going to get at the big picture of why all this is - these preparations are happening in just a moment. But can you just start us off here with a sample of some of the changes that Chicago is making because of weather concerns?

WEIGERT: Sure, and I think your question about the big picture is critical because this is a theme that Chicago has been thinking about for several years. We really asked ourselves that question of how can we ensure that Chicago is an attractive, competitive and sustainable city today and tomorrow?

And so in thinking about that, we really looked at what we can do to both prevent any potential changes in the planet and then to make sure that we're preparing. We want to make sure we're working with our residents today and our residents of tomorrow.

So it leads to things like thinking about how can we ensure that parts of the city are cooler, as we think about high heat, ensuring that we have trees in the right places and that those trees are spread throughout the city and that they will be the trees that can grow here for decades to come.

LUDDEN: And that's changing, I understand.

WEIGERT: We have thought about different kinds of trees. What's predicted for the city of Chicago in terms of changes in the climate are more high-heat days, probably a wetter winter and spring, more intense storm events. And so we're looking broadly at all of those themes in terms of how we prepare.

And so we're looking to make sure that as we plant trees, those are the trees that will be comfortable in this slightly different environment.

LUDDEN: And is it correct, I read your plant hardiness zone in a few decades out is going to be like Birmingham, Alabama?

WEIGERT: You know, our plant hardiness zone has already changed a bit in the last decade or so, and it's certainly possible that it will change going forward. And so that's why, as we've looked a trees and the kinds of things that are planted here, we want to ensure that the natural environment, which essentially part of our infrastructure, can withstand any changes.

And so most of the trees that we plant are exactly the same. There have been some changes around the edges. So it's not just what we plant, it's also thinking about where we plant and ensuring that we have trees in neighborhoods where we know that the area might be a little bit hotter but that trees can be there to provide shade, provide cooling for individuals.

And then they also serve a dual purpose if we have rain events because the trees' leaves can actually help absorb some of that water and keep it out of our sewer systems.

LUDDEN: And speaking of rain, big changes in some of your alleys.

WEIGERT: Absolutely. Chicago has an extraordinary number of alleys. I think we've got the most in the U.S., if not the world. So it's a great opportunity for us to think about how that is a part of the infrastructure of every neighborhood. And so one of the things that we've done there is really look at how they can be a part of the solution as the weather patterns change.

And so we have permeability in our alleys. So when storm water hits, it can actually filter through the pavement and get into the ground system right there.

LUDDEN: Because what's the problem? What's happening now?

WEIGERT: What you worry about is if too much rain falls, and there's nowhere for it to go, it just can roll into other places or get into the storm system and then overflow the storm systems. And so this is a great way to keep the water draining directly into the ground, as opposed to going right into the storm systems.

LUDDEN: So you're re-paving with a permeable kind of asphalt?

WEIGERT: Yes, exactly, exactly. So it'll look just like an alley to you, but when the water hits, it can actually filter right through. And then we're building infrastructure underneath it, as well, like open-bottom catch basins that then capture the water and also funnel it back into the ground so it's not overflowing our storm system.

LUDDEN: Wow, and then thermal radar mapping hot spots. What's that?

WEIGERT: Yeah, the city really wanted to get a good understanding of which parts of Chicago were hotter when we have high-heat days. And so heat's not distributed evenly throughout the city, and some things can exacerbate that. A certain example of that would be having a blacktop roof. You know, on a hot day, that's an extraordinarily unpleasant place to be, and that's very different than a white roof or a green roof.

And so thermal imaging just gives us an understanding of where some of those places are so we know how to target activity like that. So I'm actually talking to you right now from City Hall in Chicago, and a few stories above me is our own green roof. And so that's one of those places where we have green infrastructure up above us.

LUDDEN: Does that mean like a garden on the roof? What does it mean, a green roof?

WEIGERT: It actually means there is essentially a beautiful Midwestern prairie up above where I am talking to you. It has all sorts of native grasses and some others, a couple trees. But it's great because when it rains, that surface can absorb some of the water. So in terms of the rain events, it gets captured onsite.

And then also it's a cooler surface. So when we think about the heat and exacerbating the heat not just for us in the building, it certainly makes it cooler and cheaper for us to air-condition the building because of that surface, but it also means that the air around our building is cooler, and so that helps everybody in the area.

LUDDEN: All right, Karen, stay with us, please. We're going to come back to you. But we want to hear a little bit of this big picture. Joining us now from member station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia, is Brian Stone. He's associate professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech and the author of "The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live." Brian Stone, thanks so much for being here. Oop, we may not have him. Brian Stone?

OK, we're going to get Brian Stone. Karen Weigert, back to Chicago. What - tell us more about what changes in the weather you are expecting? And obviously this must be a hard thing to calculate, but what are you preparing for?

WEIGERT: We were lucky enough to have some real national experts work with Chicago a couple of years ago to try to do exactly what you're saying, which is give us the best guess. What are the predictions of what could happen here in the city of Chicago?

And I think one of those really important things of those really important things of those predictions and projections is it really depends on what happens to the climate. And so when we thought about climate, and the city built a climate plan a few years ago, the first four strategies are all about preventing greenhouse gas emissions.

LUDDEN: So how do you do that?

WEIGERT: Let's try to ensure that there's not as much change, and then we want to prepare for it. So preventing, that really comes down to really understanding where emissions come from in different cities and in different locations? And for us, in the city of Chicago, the majority of our emissions come from the heating, cooling and use of buildings, it's about 70 percent of our emissions.

And so that really speaks to an opportunity for all of us. We all live in, rent, work in buildings. And so the city of Chicago has tried to move to reduce energy use in buildings. So we've actually announced an effort on the city's own infrastructure, it's called Retrofit Chicago. It's part of a much bigger initiative that Mayor Emanuel is driving on building a new Chicago which is all focused on our infrastructure.

And that's a focus where we are going to work to reduce energy use in city buildings and in city assets. It will reduce the costs for us and therefore for the taxpayers. It will reduce emissions, and it's going to put a lot of people in Chicago to work. So that's a great example going right after the biggest source of emissions from Chicago and really creating a positive strategic opportunity for all of us.

And so we've done that work on city assets, and then we were lucky enough to partner with 14 amazing private buildings in the city of Chicago. And so just last month, 14 million square feet of gorgeous skyscrapers in the city all focused on and agreed to at least 20 percent energy efficiency in their buildings.

So certainly we are focused on the city's buildings, but we have the minority of the buildings. There are so many beautiful structures throughout the city of Chicago, and it was a huge pleasure to start that partnership.

LUDDEN: And these are private businesses?

WEIGERT: Absolutely. When you look at the skyline of Chicago, these 14 buildings are all a part of that.

LUDDEN: All right, I'm told we do have Brian Stone now from WABE in Atlanta, Georgia. Hi, Brian.

DR. BRIAN STONE: Hi, thanks for having me, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much. So you...

STONE: Sorry for the delay.

LUDDEN: That's all right. So help us understand why cities like Chicago and some others are making these changes. What do we know about what is ahead for the climate?

STONE: So we know the big-picture issue is that the planet as a whole is warming, and weather is becoming more extreme, as you've already noted. We've got to highlight the fact that in cities in particular, these global-scale changes are actually being amplified. And so in a place like Chicago, in a place like Atlanta, where you have large cities with lots of infrastructure, I mean my own region of Atlanta, when we build cities, when we build buildings and parking lots, we cut down a lot of trees.

And what that does is it creates a phenomenon that's known technically as the urban heat island effect. And that simply means that we're not only warming from this greenhouse pollution, we're warming from absorbing more solar energy because we don't have that shading and that natural tree canopy cover or whatever the natural vegetation is.

LUDDEN: So that's why on the weather forecast, it's always hotter downtown than it is out in the country.

STONE: You know, it really is, and if you've got a temperature gauge in your car, you can see that as you drive from the central city out to the suburbs: It will drop several degrees. It's pretty consistent.

LUDDEN: OK, so what - so heat is the main thing, or are there other things that are going to happen with the weather?

WEIGERT: So there are a range of things, but what we need to note about what's happening with the heat island effect is that it's dramatically increasing not only temperatures in cities but the rate at which they're warming. What we find is large cities around the U.S. tend to be warming at a rate that's about double that of the planet as a whole.

STONE: And so cities are really kind of the leading edge of climate change today with respect to heat. There can also be some implications for rainfall and flooding, as well.

LUDDEN: Wow, so New York getting hotter faster?

STONE: It's getting hotter faster for sure, and so - but the good news here is that there are a number of things we can do, and Karen has really been doing a great job of describing what Chicago is doing, which is clearly a leader in this area, to offset the rate at which cities are warming. And so, you know, cities are empowered to really have some control over their climate fate.

LUDDEN: OK, but so - but we just this year have seen not just heat, we've got drought, we've had fires. I keep reading about flooding being more a possibility. What other things, extreme weather events, could cities - should cities prepare for?

STONE: Well, so there's a range of things. There are things you mentioned, and it of course depends on where the city is. If it's a coastal city, then flooding, impact of hurricanes, all those types of extreme weather will be a significant threat. What we need to highlight, though, is that heat is the leading cause of health-related effects from climate, at least historically.

If we look at heat waves in cities, in U.S. cities, heat waves are responsible for more weather fatalities, more weather-related deaths, than all other forms of extreme weather combined: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes. All those combined don't kill as many people every year as heat does.

LUDDEN: And can you also help explain something that can be confusing? And Karen was talking about there could be more rain at some times of the year but less rain at other times. How is a city supposed to deal with that? What's happening?

STONE: Well, so it's - you know, there's more energy and moisture in the atmosphere. And so what we're typically seeing is that we're having more intense rainfall patterns. And so when the rain does happen, it will be more intense, often, and then you'll have longer periods between precipitation events. And so that's leading to both more storm damage related with rain and then more extensive droughts, as well.

LUDDEN: All right. If you can stay with us, and Karen, we're going to come back to you, as well, we're talking about how cities around the country are considering extreme weather as they plan for the future. What's your city doing? Call us at 800-989-8255, the email address talk@npr.org. More in just a minute. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. We know all too well how vulnerable some parts of the U.S. are to extreme weather. New Orleans springs immediately to mind, battered and nearly beaten by Hurricane Katrina. But as major weather events become more common, not just hurricanes but heat waves and flooding and fire, cities are looking ahead, planning how to handle them.

And that planning is underway across the country. Storm surges could swamp subway systems in New York and Boston. Melting permafrost in Alaska already damages roads and other infrastructure and water shortages would threaten much of the West.

So what's your city doing to prepare for future extreme weather? Our number is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. We're joined by Brian Stone, the author of "The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live."

And Karen Weigert, chief sustainability officer for the city of Chicago, I know you need to go, but can you just give us a - tell us what else is coming up. You said you just had some big private companies there in the city buy into your effort there to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and you're doing lots to kind of make the city cooler. What's coming up?

WEIGERT: Sure, and it was a great partnership with these private buildings. I think in a big picture, we've been talking a lot about some of the infrastructure changes, and that's absolutely critical because we want to ensure that Chicago is competitive today and competitive tomorrow. And so we're spending a lot of time and energy there.

We're also making sure that today we can assist the residents as heat and as weather patterns change. So we have cooling centers around the city. We open up public buildings to ensure that on a hot day, you've got access to a cool place to go if you don't have that at home. So I want to make sure we think: Is what we're doing today for today? And is what we're doing today for tomorrow?

And so as we look at that for tomorrow, we are continuing to look at those infrastructure changes and at strengthening infrastructure so that it is prepared for these different weather patterns that we might see and also continuing to build the kind of city where you have a very sustainable experience, and you can walk and ride your bike and have local food here.

We want to protect and preserve that. So we were actually lucky enough to be named the most sustainable large community in America a couple of months ago by the U.S. Chamber and by Siemens. And that speaks I think to the great efforts in Chicago but also to the many efforts that we need to continue to do.

There are many cities that have been recognized in similar ways, and I'd like to think that cities are the front ground for really making the future today. And that's what we're trying to do every day in Chicago.

LUDDEN: Karen Weigert, chief sustainability officer for Chicago, thank you so much.

WEIGERT: A pleasure.

LUDDEN: And we're joined now by - from member station KCPW in Salt Lake City by Vicki Bennett. She's the sustainability director for Salt Lake City. Welcome to the program.

VICKI BENNETT: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: So what kind of weather changes are you preparing for there in Salt Lake City?

BENNETT: Well, in Salt Lake City we are fairly sure from the climate models that we are going to be having increased temperatures, which is something we're seeing this summer and, you know, have been seeing for a few years now. We aren't as sure about water, about how much water we'll be having in the form of precipitation, if we'll be getting more or less, but we can tell that it's be coming more as rain rather than snow.

So we're seeing some, you know, potential issues with snow pack and how it can not only affect our tourism industry but then also our water supplies. So we're really beginning some formal planning processes to try to address some of these possible changes.

LUDDEN: We have an email from Yacob(ph) in Palo Alto, California, asking about this very question of water management. What's being done to ensure, you know, supplies for the future, reservoirs stay full aquifers and so forth? What - if you don't even know exactly how that weather pattern, that water pattern is going to change, what are you doing?

BENNETT: Well, we have public utilities department that is extremely on top of this and has been doing water planning for years. So, you know, it's interesting that that's something so many people are extremely concerned about. And when I went to my first adaptation conferences, looking at future climate issues, we were concerned with water and talking about that.

And as we spoke to people, so many other topics came up, and we realized that we're probably extremely prepared when it comes to our water quality and quantity, for quite a while, but we also are understanding that we have other issues such as heat might impact our air quality. We have public health issues.

And so, as we're starting to consider climate impacts, we're really starting to want to look at this from an overall risk reduction. How do we really look, for the next 20, years to ensure that, you know, the climate changes that we already see, and the ones that are going to be, you know, potentially impacting us, could affect many of our different city areas.

LUDDEN: Brian Stone, what are some of the larger other concerns that we may not think about when it comes to climate in the cities, that you just mentioned public health?

STONE: Right, public health is a big one, and it really shouldn't be underestimated. We just had this rather extensive event around Washington, D.C., and up the Atlantic Seaboard where we had a significant heat wave come in, and we saw concurrent with that significant failure in infrastructure. Our electrical infrastructure, when you have a blackout, that increases vulnerability.

LUDDEN: Yes, I lived in many days without air conditioning. Ha-ha, I was there.

STONE: You know firsthand. But, you know, it's important to note that today in most cities, air conditioning is our chief adaptive response to climate change in terms of extreme heat. I mean, that's what we're relying on at present to deal with this as a problem.

We've seen in recent years some really significant levels of fatality rates around the world. In European cities in 2003, across about 10, 11 countries, about 70,000 people lost their lives over the course of a single summer from extreme heat. And that's a very large number. We saw a number almost that large in Russia in 2010.

So the vulnerability is here today. This is not really looking out 100 years. And a lot of that vulnerability has to do with, not just how the climate's changing, but whether our infrastructure is ready to handle these crises today.

LUDDEN: All right, let's bring a caller in. We have Greg(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi there, Greg.

GREG: Hi thanks for taking my call. I'm fascinated by the conversation today, and I really applaud what the participants are doing. I wanted to tell you a little bit about a program we have in Charlotte called Envision Charlotte. It's sort of like what Chicago has started, but it's focusing on the downtown area and saving energy and water over the next five years, cutting both of those uses by 20 percent in about 21 million square feet of office buildings.

LUDDEN: Oh, and how? Is that up to the individual private - is it the city doing that, or...?

GREG: It's actually a partnership between the city and private companies like Duke Energy and Verizon and Cisco and then the individual building owners. So we help them understand what their consumption is in real time and report that on kiosks that are in the lobbies of the office buildings. So anybody walking into a building at any given time can see what the real total energy consumption is at any given moment.

And then there's suggestions for the building owners and also for the building occupants on how to reduce usage.

LUDDEN: All right, great, thank you so much for the call. Vicki Bennett in Salt Lake City, I'm curious: Is it hard to get buy-in if you're actually asking people to maybe change their behavior or companies to spend money on this? Is it difficult?

BENNETT: Well, we're framing it in kind of a combination of emergency management planning and risk reduction. You know, our community spends a lot of time, effort and money preparing for what might be the next major earthquake that experts say there's a 20 percent of happening in the next 20 years.

But we're seeing climate change and the impacts now and, you know, understand that there's probably a 95 percent likelihood of it getting worse. When you start telling people that we're not trying to scare them, but we are trying to help them be more resilient and trying to help them plan for the future, we have a lot better buy-in.

We're really just trying to show them that long-term planning is going to really save money, save taxpayer money, where inaction might actually lead to higher costs in the future.

LUDDEN: And haven't insurance companies figured that one out? I've read that - what's happening there?

BENNETT: Well, insurance companies, you know, are probably the - you could say the canary in the coalmine. They're already raising rates on many of these things because they understand that there is this additional risk. And, you know, perhaps we have a higher risk of flooding. Perhaps we have, you know, higher risks of various health issues.

And, you know, if we can do everything to mitigate these risks and figure out where we really need to put our efforts, which areas are we more vulnerable, which areas are we already resilient, by doing some really good planning we can get the best bang for our buck and prepare for this.

LUDDEN: All right, Vicki Bennett, sustainability director for Salt Lake City, Utah, she joined us from member station KCPW there in Salt Lake City. Thank you so much.

BENNETT: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Brian Stone, are there financial incentives? I mean, what's the case for cities who maybe aren't quite so ahead of the curve, here, as Salt Lake City and Chicago?

STONE: Well, what I like to emphasize is that climate adaptation planning, which is kind of generally how we describe all these types of actions, is really highly compatible with just your basic economic development planning. I mean, what we're seeing in Chicago, for example that was being described by Karen, all those things contribute to quality of life.

It increases property values. It makes the environment more enjoyable, not just in a hotter environment, but just in general. And so these are many types of strategies that cities should probably be investing in anyway. I don't think we should think of this as an entirely different chapter of new planning responsibilities that cities should undertake, but as a larger project of making cities more livable.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's take a call here. Adam in Springville, New York. Hi, there.

ADAM: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm curious to know if cities - and larger regions, actually, as a whole - are looking forward ahead and trying to plan by reducing things that we already have. For instance, in Utah and Arizona, there are golf courses that exist solely on reservoir water. And a lot of sprawl in suburban areas takes place where trees are razed completely, reducing trees. Simple legislation could reduce some of these impacts by either limiting the golf courses that we have or requiring trees be in place, think things along those lines. Are they looking ahead in those areas?

LUDDEN: All right. Thanks for the call, Adam. Brian Stone?

STONE: Yes. It's a great question. I would say very few cities are developing kind of comprehensive climate adaptation plans. The points you raise about the loss of trees and particularly in - with different growth patterns, we looked - at Georgia Tech, we had a study, and we looked at whether there's a difference between the number of heat wave days every year in sprawling cities and compact cities. And I live in a sprawling city. Atlanta ranks very highly on kind of our sprawl indices.

And what we found was that the cities that are growing most rapidly in a low-density fashion, these sprawling cities, tend to be experiencing an increase in heat wave days that's twice as great as compact cities like Chicago.

LUDDEN: Really?

STONE: Yeah. And so...

LUDDEN: And that's - well - but do you factor out the climate and where they are, north or in the south?

STONE: We do. We directly control for the climate.


STONE: And so when we talk about what a heat wave day is, it's not just a pure temperature. It's a temperature that induces hospital visits, essentially. And so we see, you know, heat wave days in Chicago occur at lower temperatures than heat wave days in Atlanta. So we do control for that, and we find that these growth patterns are really very important to how quickly cities are warming.

LUDDEN: So you're in Atlanta there. What's - are changes being made there?

STONE: I wish I could say that we had a robust kind of climate planning apparatus here, but Atlanta, like most cities, has just not thought about climate change as a responsible - responsibility of the city itself. And I think one of the limitations of relying on the global community to develop a plan for climate change, or even just the national government, is that cities haven't been sufficiently proactive. And I think as we're seeing these more extreme events, cities are really starting to understand that this responsibility today largely falls to them to take the necessary action.

LUDDEN: Well, I was wondering if there was, in an odd way, an upside to this extreme weather summer just by maybe serving as a wake-up call to some people.

STONE: Yeah. I think it really is. I think it's not, you know, it's not - we never want to wish for these types of events, but I think there's still sufficient time for cities to take dramatic action to adjust to these changes. And one of the things that I would note is we need to be actively reducing greenhouse gases to address the larger phenomenon of global warming. And that's certainly true.

But that's going to be a very long-term process, and it will literally take us hundreds of years to arrest that process if we aggressively pursue it today. We can cool down temperatures in cities over the period of a decade or two by aggressively planting trees.

And so New York is undertaking a campaign to plant a million trees. Los Angeles is planting a million trees. Those are realizable goals over the period of a decade or two, which is relatively short when you think about climate change.

LUDDEN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Freida(ph) is in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Freida.

FREIDA: Hi. I'm just actually in the process of moving to Tucson. And the reason that I chose Tucson as a desirable community - even though a lot of people would think it's at the edge of the desert and it's already being severely affected with the increase in heat and all - is I have been greatly impressed that the University of Arizona actually has - and they're the only one - only university in the country that has created a department that is - it's called the Department of Water.


FREIDA: And it's a way - they're - and I would love to hear more about people that are more deeply involved in it. But they take not just the science - the physical science and the natural science of the changing climate in the Southwest climate centers down there, but they are also integrating practices in civil engineering and infrastructure development and change that needs to happen, as well as addressing water laws, some that need to be changed and some that have never existed.

And it just showed that there is a way of thinking down there that even though they exist in what is considered an extreme environment for most people in America, they are willing to go forward very actively, not just addressing the problems that are happening now, but changing their educational system to see that all the ramifications of the changes that are coming in climate and the changes of our concentrations in population can be affected by making the change happen in the university first. That's (technical difficulty) point.

LUDDEN: All right, Freida. Well, thank you so much for the call, Freida. And we actually have an email from Tucson. Kenneth says he wonders - he says in Tucson there's a shift in consciousness. Whole neighborhoods are implementing initiatives to collect runoff from flooded streets, for example.

We just have a moment left, but, Brian Stone, what do you see going forward? Are more cities going to start making changes?

STONE: I think they definitely will, and I think the Tucson example is a wonderful example because it is a more extreme climate, and so that's where people really are seeing the changes happening most rapidly. And one thing I should note with that is that planning for this at the scale of a city makes a lot of sense because what we need to do varies across the country. Tucson shouldn't be planting a million trees because they can't support that with their water availability. So what works in Tucson is going to be different than what works in Chicago or Atlanta, and thinking about that at the level of the city makes a lot of sense.

LUDDEN: All right. Brian Stone, associate professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, is the author of "The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live." And he joined us from member station WABE in Atlanta. Thank you so much.

STONE: Hey, thank you. A total pleasure. Enjoyed it.

LUDDEN: Coming up next: David Brancaccio. He's a familiar voice for public radio listeners. He's got a new documentary out called "Fixing the Future." We'll talk with him after a short break. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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