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Biden visits Uvalde seeking to comfort the community after last week's shooting

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Justice Department is carrying out an independent investigation of the police response to last week's shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. President Biden visited the area yesterday to pay respects and console families. The city is grieving the loss of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. NPR's Pien Huang is in Uvalde and joins me now.

Pien, let's start with the DOJ investigation. Why is the DOJ taking this up right now?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: There's a lot of anger from the community, a lot of questions over how law enforcement responded to the shooting. At first, Texas Governor Greg Abbott praised a quick response for saving children's lives. Then the Texas Department of Public Safety said their investigation showed that 19 policemen had stood in the hallway outside the classroom for the better part of an hour instead of going in. They called it a bad decision. Rumors are now swirling around town on how it played out. And local residents say it's important for the families to know what happened.

So yesterday, the Justice Department said that they're launching their own independent probe into the law enforcement response - comes at the request of the mayor of Uvalde. And he's been asked to hold law enforcement accountable. DOJ says that their goals here are to explain what happened and how law enforcement can avoid these mistakes in the next active-shooter situation. There's no clear timeframe for the investigation, but they have pledged to make the results public.

MARTIN: President Biden was in Uvalde yesterday. What did he see? Who did he hear from?

HUANG: Yes. The president and the first lady spent a full day here yesterday. They placed white flowers at the memorial site at Robb Elementary School, where white crosses carry the names of the dead. At one point, the president wiped away a tear. The Bidens also attended Sunday morning mass with 600 parishioners at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church with the archbishop presiding. And those that were there told us he was just there to pray. Outside the church, a small crowd had gathered in the 93-degree heat.

Linda Casas had driven in from San Antonio, and she, like the Bidens, wanted to come to Uvalde to pay her respects.

LINDA CASAS: I'm not a parent. I have nieces and nephews - 10, 5, 6. And I don't know. It just hit me. For some reason, I said - I woke up this morning, and I said, you know what? I got to go.

MARTIN: So how was the president received in this complicated moment?

HUANG: Well, as Biden exited the church, an onlooker shouted, do something, and Biden said, we will. The Bidens also did take time to meet with survivors and family members. Those meetings were private. Some people in the community that we spoke with were grateful that the president came to visit and show solidarity, support. And those that didn't care for the president mostly just stayed away.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, this community is getting ready to do very grim work to hold the funeral services for the victims. What have you observed about that process, Pien?

HUANG: It's been a big focus here in the community. And a lot of help and a lot of donations have been pouring in. Jimmy Lucas, the director of the Texas Funeral Directors Association, says that they've sent caskets, embalmers, hearses. They're doing anything they can to support the city's two funeral homes, which are just not equipped to handle this many deaths all at the same time.

Next to one of those funeral homes, the florist is working nonstop, making wreaths and arrangements. Kelly Baker is owner of The Flower Patch.

KELLY BAKER: Some days are harder than others, especially when you're sitting with families that you've grown up with. It's so hard because they're coming to you to do something very personal for them.

HUANG: The other day, she sat with a high-school classmate who lost a child in the shooting.

BAKER: Their baby's favorite was sunflowers. As we start making these arrangements, we're just going to make sure and save sunflowers for this baby so that, you know, her family gets just a tiny bit of what she wanted - or what she would have wanted - for her service.

HUANG: Services for the victims start today with visitation for 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza. She celebrated her birthday earlier this month, and her family says that she was a happy, creative kid who made honor roll, liked to draw and paint. Over the next 2 1/2 weeks, the community will put 18 more children and two more teachers to rest.

MARTIN: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you.

HUANG: 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.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.