U.S. homebuilding takes a step back amid bitterly cold weather

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. homebuilding dropped to a six-month low in February as severe cold gripped many parts of the country, in a temporary setback for a housing market that remains supported by extremely lean inventories amid strong demand for larger homes.

The report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday also showed a sharp decline in building permits last month. It followed on the heels of data this week showing that the deep freeze, which was most severe in Texas and other parts of the densely populated South region, depressed retail sales and output at factories.

Though the second straight monthly decline in homebuilding could lead economists to trim their lofty gross domestic product estimates for the first quarter, a rebound in starts is expected in the April-June period, keeping intact predictions that economic growth this year will be the strongest since 1984.

Indeed, the Federal Reserve on Wednesday projected robust growth and higher inflation this year. The U.S. central bank, however, repeated its pledge to keep its benchmark overnight interest rate near zero for years to come.

“We can read nothing into the underlying strength of the economy from these weather-distorted reports,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York. “March data are likely to show strong bounce backs in consumer spending, industrial production and construction activity.”

Housing starts fell 10.3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.421 million units last month, the lowest level since last August. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast starts would decrease to a rate of 1.560 million units in February.

Starts were down 9.3% on a year-on-year basis in February.

Groundbreaking activity plunged in the Northeast, Midwest and South, but surged in the West. Permits for future home building tumbled 10.8% to a rate of 1.682 million units last month. They, however, jumped 17.0% compared to February 2020, underscoring the housing market’s strength.

U.S. stocks pared losses following the Fed statement. The dollar edged down versus a basket of currencies. Longer-dated U.S. Treasury yields were higher.


The year-long COVID-19 pandemic has shifted demand towards bigger and more expensive houses as millions of Americans continue to work from home and remote schooling remains in place.

But challenges for the housing market, one of the main drivers of the economic recovery, are mounting. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage has risen to an eight-month high of 3.05%, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac.

Mortgage rates have jumped in tandem with Treasury yields, which have spiked as investors anticipate that stronger growth will generate significant inflation. Growth is being driven by massive fiscal stimulus, including President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package, which was enacted last week.

A separate report from the Mortgage Bankers Association on Wednesday showed a moderate increase in applications for loans to purchase a home last week. Though mortgage rates remain low by historical standards, they are contributing to the rising costs of homeownership, especially for first-time buyers.

Supply disruptions because of coronavirus-related restrictions are driving up commodity prices, including softwood lumber, which surged a record 79.7% in February on a year-on-year basis. According to a survey from the Associated General Contractors of America, manufacturers have hiked drywall prices by 20% effective late March or the beginning of April.

A survey on Tuesday showed confidence among single-family homebuilders dipped in March, despite strong buyer traffic, amid worries over rising material costs and delivery times, especially for softwood lumber.

With the supply of previously owned homes at record low levels, builders are likely to continue breaking more ground, though houses could become more expensive.

“Builders face some near-term challenges,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “We don’t anticipate that this will weigh too heavily on starts, the forecast is for housing starts to steadily increase throughout the course of this year.”

Single-family homebuilding, the largest share of the housing market, declined 8.5% to a rate of 1.040 million units in February, also a six-month low. Single-family building permits tumbled 10.0% to a rate of 1.143 million units.

Starts for the volatile multi-family segment plunged 15.0% to a pace of 381,000 units. Building permits for multi-family housing projects declined 12.5% to a pace of 539,000 units.

Housing completions jumped 2.9% to a rate of 1.362 million units last month. Realtors estimate that housing starts and completion rates need to be in a range of 1.5 million to 1.6 million units per month to close the inventory gap.

The stock of housing under construction rose 0.3% to a rate of 1.283 million units, the highest level since October 2006.

“Builders will continue to have a key role to play in addressing the inventory shortage for a market chock full of eager home shoppers,” said Matthew Speakman, an economist at Zillow. “The homebuilding sector has more room to run.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao and Andrea Ricci)

Michigan, Washington state impose severe COVID-19 restrictions as U.S. infections soar

By David Shepardson and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Michigan and Washington state on Sunday imposed sweeping new restrictions on gatherings, including halting indoor restaurant service, to slow the spread of the coronavirus as total U.S. infections crossed the 11 million mark, just over a week after hitting 10 million.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered a ban on in-person high school and college classes as well as indoor dining service for three weeks starting on Wednesday as increasingly cold weather drives people indoors where the virus can spread more easily.

She banned public events at concert halls, casinos, movie theaters, skating rinks and other venues, while in-home gatherings will be limited to 10 people from no more than two households.

Whitmer, a Democrat, warned that without aggressive action, Michigan could soon suffer 1,000 COVID-19 deaths per week.

“We are in the worst moment of this pandemic to date,” she told a news conference. “The situation has never been more dire. We are at the precipice and we need to take some action.”

White House coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas reacted to the Michigan orders by urging state residents on Twitter to “rise up” against them. After this drew criticism from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Atlas said he “NEVER was talking at all about violence.”

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, announced a one-month ban on indoor services at restaurants and gyms, and a reduction of in-store retail capacity to 25%.

Indoor gatherings would be prohibited outside of one’s household and outdoor gatherings would be limited to five people in Washington state under Inslee’s order.

The new restrictions come as daily new infections in recent days have more than doubled from single-day highs reported during the previous U.S. peak in mid-July. The number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals also has reached an all-time high.


Earlier on Sunday, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s top advisers called for urgent action to address COVID-19, warning that Republican President Donald Trump’s refusal to begin a transition of power could further jeopardize the battle against the rampaging virus. Biden’s advisers also said it would inhibit vaccine distribution planning and could jeopardize additional government financial aid before Biden, a Democrat, takes office in January.

“We are in a very dangerous period,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

Unless action is taken now, “we’re going to see these numbers grow substantially,” Osterholm warned. “Our future’s in our hands.”

Basic public health measures such as face covering to curb the spread have become politicized under Trump, who has eschewed mask mandates even after contracting COVID-19 last month, while Biden has backed their widespread use.

Still, some Republican governors in recent days have been forced to act, with North Dakota joining 35 other states over the weekend in mandating masks and Iowa this week requiring them in certain circumstances.

Forty U.S. states have reported record increases in COVID-19 cases in November, while 20 saw a record rise in deaths and 26 reported record hospitalizations, according to a Reuters tally.

The latest 7-day average, shows the United States is reporting more than 144,000 daily cases and 1,120 daily deaths, the highest for any country in the world.

Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff, on Sunday urged Congress to immediately pass COVID-19 relief legislation with new restrictions certain to take a toll.

“This could be a first example of bipartisan action post-election,” Klain told NBC. He said Biden has spoken to congressional Democratic leaders, but not to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has refused to publicly acknowledge Biden as president-elect.


Klain said there had been no formal contact between Biden’s advisory panel and the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which requires transition authorization from the General Services Administration.

“It’s really important in the smooth handing over of the information,” top U.S. infectious disease expert and White House task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “It’s almost like passing a baton in a race, you don’t want to stop and give it to somebody, you just want to essentially keep going.”

Biden’s team this week planned to meet with Pfizer Inc., which last week released positive initial data on its experimental novel coronavirus vaccine, and other drugmakers, Klain said.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, head of Biden’s COVID team, told Fox News the coronavirus surge was “deeply alarming” but that a national lockdown was “a measure of last resort.”

“The better way to think about these safety restrictions is more a dial that we turn up and down depending on severity” in a given area, he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Shepardson; additional reporting by Michelle Price, Nathan Layne, Sarah N. Lynch, Linda So and Anurag Maan; Writing by David Lawder; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Diane Craft, Robert Birsel)

Cold, disease threaten more than half a million Syrians fleeing Idlib fighting

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Cold weather, disease and a lack of shelter and medicine threaten hundreds of thousands of civilians as they flee fighting in Idlib province, in one of the biggest upheavals of Syria’s nine-year civil war, aid groups and doctors said.

The migrants, their numbers swelling by the day, are trapped between advancing Syrian government forces, keen to crush the last significant opposition stronghold, and Turkey’s closed border.

Some are having to flee by foot, while many others are having to sleep in their cars, as Syrian and Russian warplanes bombard the highways leading north toward Turkey.

A U.N. official appealed for emergency financial assistance to help an estimated 800,000 people in northwest Syria to survive the coming months.

“People are facing a tragedy. For the last two weeks it’s been very, very cold. There is rain and mud, and influenza is spreading,” said Wassim Zakaria, a doctor who works in a clinic in Idlib city that closed on Monday due to heavy bombardment.

The numbers on the move have increased in recent days as the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advanced to within 8 km (5 miles) of Idlib city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.

“If the cold weather continues…there is a risk of epidemics as a large migrant flow is coming,” he said.

Since November, 692,000 people have abandoned towns south of Idlib city, Tosun said. The number “is rising every hour” and could reach 1 million, he added.

Zakaria said people had also started to flee from Idlib city but their options for shelter were limited, with people forced to sleep in cars or tents, many near the walled-off border which prevents Syrians taking refuge in Turkey.

“It’s like people are imprisoned here. Last week women and children demonstrated at the border, asking to be allowed across,” he said.

Turkey’s IHH is distributing urgent aid and blankets to those traveling on the highway from Idlib city and has set up 2,000 tents, with plans to put up another 1,500, Tosun said.

Some 700 breeze-block dwellings have also been built out of a total 10,000 which Turkey is planning to erect in the region south of its border, he said.

He added that many people were now seeking shelter beyond Idlib province, already home to waves of civilians displaced earlier in Syria’s civil war, and were heading toward Afrin and Azaz, areas just to the northeast under the control of Turkish-led Syrian rebel forces.


David Swanson, U.N. regional spokesperson for the Syria crisis, said $336 million was urgently needed to help those being displaced, with shelter a critical problem.

“This crisis continues to deteriorate by the minute. This is easily one of the largest waves of displacements since the (Syrian civil war) began in March 2011,” Swanson said.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are in now in urgent need of critical, life-saving assistance,” he said.

The United Nations has put the number of displaced from the Idlib fighting since Dec. 1 at 520,000, with a further 280,000 seen at “imminent risk of displacement”.

Many of the displaced are staying with host communities who themselves are struggling to cope, while others have sought shelter in schools or mosques, or are sleeping in their vehicles or in the open air, said Swanson.

“The humanitarian situation in Syria is more catastrophic than ever before. Who would have imagined that entire cities would be displaced in a single month?” said Atef Nanou, manager of Molham Volunteering Team, a relief group in northern Syria.

He said he had encountered families unable to get away from the bombing because they couldn’t afford fuel for their car or transportation costs.

“So they either stayed despite the bombing or went out on foot on the international road that the Syrian regime and Russian warplanes are bombing around the clock,” Nanou added.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Land of the freeze: arctic wave hits U.S. Midwest, Northeast

Trees are seen after the record snowfall in Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., December 26, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken December 26, 2017.

By Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Most of the U.S. Northeast and Midwest grappled with a post-Christmas deep freeze on Thursday, with temperatures expected to plunge as low as minus 20 degrees F (minus 29 C) in North Dakota as forecasters warned that the harsh winter weather could usher in the New Year.

Tioga, about 200 miles (322 km) north of Bismarck, took honors as the coldest spot in the continental United States, according to National Weather Service (NWS) spokesman Bob Oravec. The mercury dived to minus 15 F early on Thursday afternoon.

“By tomorrow morning, low temperatures will probably be 15 to 20 degrees below zero in the northern and northwestern areas of North Dakota, maybe even in north Minnesota,” Oravec said.

On Wednesday, International Falls, Minnesota, about 300 miles north of Minneapolis, lived up to its reputation as the “Icebox of the Nation.” The low temperature there dropped to 37 degrees F below zero, breaking the old record for the day of 32 degrees below, set in 1924. Temperatures moderated to minus 2 F on Thursday.

Mayor Bob Anderson told Reuters that a local paper mill had to reduce operations because of the cold. But he said mail was still being delivered, and the town’s roughly 6,000 weather-hardened residents were taking the cold in stride.

For most of the region encompassing New England, northern Pennsylvania and New York, the NWS issued wind chill advisories or warnings. Temperatures in the region ranged from highs in the teens and 20s F to lows in the single digits or below zero.

For upstate New York, east of Lake Ontario, the NWS warned of “dangerously” cold wind chills of minus 5 F to minus 30 F through Friday. In northern Vermont, conditions are even more brutal, with wind chills threatening to bottom out at minus 40 F.

On Twitter, the hashtag #ItsSoCold was the No. 1 trending topic in the United States on Thursday as social media users expressed their frustration with Old Man Winter.

“When your landlord doesn’t have the heat on during the workweek so the cat sitting in your lap isn’t just cute, but also practical. #ItsSoCold,” wrote user Walton Clark on Twitter.

Erie, a city of about 100,000 on the shores of Lake Erie in northwest Pennsylvania, was expecting a fresh round of winter storms that could bring as much as an additional 10 inches (25 cm) of “lake effect” snow, forecasters said. The area is already buried under more than 65 inches from a record-breaking storm earlier this week.

The accumulations, heavy even by the standards of the Great Lakes’ eastern shores, resulted from a wave of Arctic air moving across the relatively mild waters of the lake, forecasters said.

Light and heavy snow was also expected to fall this weekend in many other parts of the United States, from Montana to Maine, forecasters said.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Cold persists in U.S. Midwest as Pacific Northwest braces for snow

People walk by snow-covered statue

(Reuters) – Arctic air blowing through Chicago and other parts of the U.S. Midwest was expected to keep the region under a deep freeze on Wednesday, as residents of Oregon were blanketed with snow from a separate weather system, forecasters said.

Temperatures in Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, were expected to plunge to between 13 and 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 to minus 5 degrees Celsius) with a wind chill factor as low as minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the National Weather Service said in an advisory.

Arctic air spreading from Canada across much of the northern United States this week has led authorities to warn people against frostbite.

The Midwest was expected to experience colder weather than on Tuesday, at the outset of the arctic air blast, National Weather Service meteorologist Andrew Orrison of the agency’s Weather Prediction Center said by telephone.

“People certainly, if they’re going to be out and about, need to dress warmly and wear multiple layers of clothes,” Orrison said.

A few inches of snow could fall on areas around the Great Lakes in Michigan and New York state, he said.

But snowfall from another storm coming to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California was likely to cause greater havoc for people’s travel plans than the snow around the Great Lakes, Orrison said.

The snowfall is due to a Pacific low pressure system and expanding moisture, National Weather Service officials said in a national advisory.

Between 4 and 8 inches (10 and 20 cm) of snow could fall in central and eastern Oregon, with the Cascade mountain range in the Pacific Northwest receiving up to 1 foot of snow, Orrison said.

The weather system that will cover parts of the Pacific Northwest with snow was expected to spread eastward later in the week.

Meanwhile, the blast of arctic air that has placed the Midwest under a deep chill will also blow eastward, bringing potentially record low temperatures to parts of the mid-Atlantic region on Thursday, Orrison said.

Cities from Boston to Washington will feel the chill beginning on Thursday and lasting at least until Friday, he said.

“For these areas it will be the coldest air of the season so far,” Orrison said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Alison Williams)

Extreme cold weather affects large portions of United States

Large portions of the United States were experiencing dangerously low temperatures on Monday morning, with wind chills poised to hit some 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in certain areas.

The National Weather Service issued wind chill advisories in parts of 16 states, warning that gusty winds and low temperatures could lead to frostbite in as little as 20 minutes in some areas.

The warnings covered portions of Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Temperatures were expected to remain below 20 degrees in almost all of the advisory areas, and large portions were expecting sub-zero or single-digit temperatures.

Wind gusts in the high teens drove the perceived temperature down further, the service said. People affected by the extreme cold were advised to dress warmly and cover all exposed skin.

The National Weather Service said the temperatures were “below-normal” and would shift further east over the next two days. Lake effect snow warnings were in effect for portions of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and the service said there was a chance of heavy snow before Tuesday night. Some parts of New York could receive up to 20 inches, forecasts say.

Winter Storm Cara Bringing Dangerous Mix

Winter Storm Cara will make traveling for Thanksgiving and for those returning home, slow going and in some places quite dangerous for a great deal of the middle of the country. According to the Weather Channel, this strong system will bring a mixture of flooding rain, heavy snow and treacherous icing conditions.  The possibility for black ice is a great concern as well as power outages from freezing rain.

Accuweather has reported that freezing rain has already been reported in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving in parts of northeast Colorado, eastern Wyoming and Nebraska.

The National Weather Service has issued an ice storm warning for portions of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, including the city of Amarillo, Texas, as well as parts of southern Kansas. These warnings are valid from Thursday night into Friday or Saturday.

Cities that could experience one or more periods of freezing rain and drizzle include Amarillo, Texas; Gage, Oklahoma; Dodge City, Kansas; Lamar, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; and Des Moines, Iowa.

According to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Bowers, “People traveling either a short or long distance from the eastern slopes of the Rockies to the Plains, Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes region are likely to encounter delays into Friday.”

Snow is expected from the central and eastern parts of Colorado and Wyoming to central Nebraska, northwestern Kansas, northwestern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota. The slushy snow will harden as the temperatures fall so caution is urged.

The most widespread impact on travel will be associated with drenching rain during Thanksgiving Day into Friday.

“Motorists will need to slow down due to patchy fog and blowing spray and to reduce the risk of hydroplaning,” Bowers said.

Enough rain can fall in some locations to cause flash flooding. The greatest risk of flooding  will extend from north-central Texas to southern Missouri.

For those traveling in these areas be sure to check weather conditions before heading out on the road.  

Latest Study Warns “Day After Tomorrow” Ice Age Closer Than We Think

When the apocalyptic film first released, critics from both the entertainment and science communities ridiculed the movie over the possibility of climate change having such an extreme affect on the world. However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Southampton has found that we are closer to a “Day After Tomorrow” scenario than we thought.

In the film, climate warming results in the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) – a major current in the Atlantic Ocean that has a northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the Atlantic and a southward flow of colder water in the deep Atlantic. This leads to New York being flooded, tornadoes in Los Angeles, and finally the north hemisphere freezing and experiencing an Ice Age.

Researchers discovered that if global warming and the collapse of the AMOC occur at the same time, the Earth will cool for a period of 20 years. After the 20 years, global warming would continue as if the AMOC never collapsed and the global average temperature would offset by approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius. They used an advanced climate model at Germany’s Max-Planck Institute to simulate the conditions.

“The planet earth recovers from the AMOC collapse in about 40 years when global warming continues at present-day rates, but near the eastern boundary of the North Atlantic (including the British Isles) it takes more than a century before temperature is back to normal,” Professor Sybren Drijfhout, from Ocean and Earth Science Department at the University of Southampton, said in the release.

The AMOC depends on a connect of the warm north waters and the cool southern waters that flow deep in the North Atlantic. Due to global warming, the Greenland ice sheet has begun to melt into the AMOC, affecting the balance of the warm and cold waters. Currently, it is causing the AMOC to slow down, but it will eventually collapse.

While the climate sequence in the movie is sped up and exaggerated, the researchers still noted that the consequences from the AMOC collapse would be no less cause for worry.

The simulation showed that Western Europe would be hit the hardest by cold temperatures but America would have to contend with floods. Sea levels on the U.S. East Coast would rise more than three feet, and the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands would see a 35-degree temperature drop.

“This would affect hundreds of millions of people,” Drijfhout said, “At least temporarily, Europe would suffer conditions that would look like the Little Ice Age of the Middle Ages.”

“When it comes to climate change, we are playing a dangerous game,” he added.

February Could Show Record Setting Cold

Meteorologists say that February 2015 could end up as one of the coldest months in Detroit history with an average temperature of just over 13 degrees.

“I’m doing some calculations but I think we are on track here to have the coldest month ever in Detroit, the way things are looking,” said AccuWeather’s Dean DeVore. “And it’s going to be brutally cold here today.”

“It’s like an open spigot from like Barrow, Alaska down to the Great Lakes. Meantime, they can’t buy a drop of rain on the west coast for the past month or so,” AccuWeather’s Dave Bowers added. “It’s been wicked. It really is quite a contrast. The western half of the country is having an extremely warm winter, and here it really is more like the Northwest Territories in our backyard.

“We’re running about almost 12 degrees below normal his month.”

Other cities across the U.S. have been setting records for cold temperatures.  Cleveland fell to -5 on Monday breaking a record set in 1873 and the first time since 1889 it was below zero on February 23rd.  The temperature hit -17 on Friday, shattering the previous low and was just 3 degrees short of the all time record for low temperature in the city.

Ann Arbor, Michigan hit -7 on Monday which broke the previous record for the date set in 1900.

Northeastern Blizzard Not As Strong As Feared

Some areas of the northeast are digging out from up to two feet of snow today but that total is far less than was anticipated from a massive winter storm.

Officials say that New York City was spared a large wave of the storm when less than a foot of snow fell on the city.  The bans on car travel were lifted early Tuesday and the New York City subway system returned to regular operation after being shut down 10 hours out of caution.

Snow is expected to fall into Wednesday morning through upper New England, leaving some towns in danger of tying or breaking record snowfall amounts for this time of year.  Snow drifts are the biggest issue, with Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker saying some drifts are over six feet in height.

Only one death has been reported from the storm so far.  A teenager died Monday when he was snow-tubing on Long Island and crashed into a lamppost.

While schools and other businesses remain closed throughout the region, the National Weather Service lifted the blizzard warning for all areas below Boston Tuesday.

New York’s governor defended his decision to issue a travel ban ahead of the storm.

“I would rather, if there is a lean one way or another, lean towards safety because I have seen the consequences the other way and it gets very frightening very quickly … we have had people die in storms,” Cuomo told reporters. “I would rather be in a situation where we say ‘We got lucky.'”