France promises 1 billion euros for curfew-hit companies

PARIS (Reuters) – Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire promised 1 billion euros ($1.17 billion) of additional support to help French companies cushion the impact of a nightly curfew in Paris and eight other big cities where the coronavirus is running rampant.

Le Maire also said that companies in the beleaguered hospitality industry would be exempt from social charges if their revenues crashed by more than 50% as a result of the curfews.

The curfews are President Emmanuel Macron’s response to a dilemma facing countries across Europe: how to keep the economy running and protect jobs while slowing the spread of infections and taking pressure off the creaking healthcare systems.

“The new measures will cost about 1 billion euros over the duration of the curfew,” Le Maire told a news conference.

Le Maire also said he was asking banks to delay interest payments on state-guaranteed loans to struggling companies in the hotel, restaurant and events industries.

The French banking lobby, FBF, said in emailed comment to Reuters that “banks share the idea that flexibility should be the rule”.

French banks have given out more than 120 billion euros in state-backed loans so far this year. FBF added that a permanent dialogue between companies and their bankers was essential in order to find the best solution for reimbursement of the loans.

“Banks are confident in their ability to act, as they did during the deployment of PGE (state-backed loans), in a perfect coordination with public authorities and businesses,” FBF said.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said people could break the curfew to travel to and from work, catch a train or plane, seek medical attention and even walk a dog – but an interior ministry exemption document would be needed in case of a police check.

France’s interior minister said 12,000 police would enforce the curfews in Paris, Toulouse, Marseille, Montpellier, Grenoble, Rouen, Lille, Lyon and Saint-Etienne. In all, the curfew order covers about 20 million people, almost a third of France’s population.

Anyone breaking the curfew will be fined 135 euros

(Reporting by Geert de Clercq; Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by John Stonestreet and Tomasz Janowski and Kirsten Donovan)

Protesters sue Kenosha claiming arrests, curfew violate U.S. Constitution

By Keith Coffman

(Reuters) – Four people arrested for curfew violations while protesting the shooting of a Black man by a white policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin sued the city and county governments on Tuesday, claiming they were denied free speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs argue that more than 150 people protesting the shooting have been taken into custody while pro-police demonstrators have been allowed to freely take to the streets, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

“In Kenosha, there are two sets of laws – one that applies to those who protest police brutality and racism, and another for those who support the police,” the plaintiffs argue in their complaint, which seeks a temporary restraining order until the litigation can be heard in court.

Reuters could not reach city and county officials for comment after business hours.

Kenosha has been the scene of sometimes violent protests after video footage surfaced showing a police officer shooting Jacob Blake, 29, multiple times in the back.

Blake was left paralyzed from the waist down and the officer, Rusten Sheskey, was placed on administrative leave during an investigation.

The protesters claim in their lawsuit that police were using the curfew to prevent them from taking part in constitutionally protected activity.

The plaintiffs also say police are selectively enforcing the curfew by not arresting pro-police demonstrators, a violation of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the constitution.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, was filed on the same day that U.S. President Donald Trump visited Kenosha over the objections of some local officials.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Stephen Coates)

Gaza man dies of coronavirus as lockdown imposed to curb first outbreak

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Gaza reported one coronavirus death and at least 10 new cases of infection on Wednesday as the blockaded Palestinian enclave sought to control its first public outbreak of the disease.

Hamas-controlled security forces enforced a lockdown in all cities in the coastal territory, warning people to stay at home or to wear face masks if they had to go out for emergencies.

Health officials said the 61-year-old man who died had pre-existing conditions and had been on a respirator.

Ten more cases were reported on Wednesday, six of them in Maghazi refugee camp where the first four infections were discovered on Monday, and another four in Gaza City and the northern area of the enclave of 2 million people.

The new infections added to concerns among local and international health organizations about Gaza’s potentially disastrous combination of poverty, densely populated refugee camps and limited hospital capacity.

Until Monday the 360 square-kilometre (139 square-mile) coastal strip had reported no infections outside border quarantine facilities for new arrivals.

Facing for the first time a situation that the rest of the world has been dealing with for months, Gazans have been going online to share experiences and voice their concerns.

“We are now alone with Corona, with the blazing sun and the power supply being cut off. Corona came to empty pockets and homes on the brink of sadness and anger,” wrote one Gaza resident on Twitter.

The 40 kilometre-long territory is sealed off from the outside world by Israeli walls, watchtowers and gunboats along 90% of its border and coastline, and by Egypt along a narrow strip to the south.

Both countries impose tight restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza, citing security concerns over Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.

The blockade is thought to be one reason why Gaza remained relatively virus-free, with many of its residents comparing their situation to a permanent lockdown.

The United Nations agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said it was considering alternative plans to continue under lockdown the health, education and food services it provides to more than half Gaza’s population.

UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said clinics remained open but staffers were providing medical consultations over the phone, and some medication was being delivered to homes.

(Additional reporting by Zainah El-Haroun in Ramallah; Writing by Stephen Farrell and Dan Williams; Editing by William Maclean and Hugh Lawson)

Two dead as gunfire erupts at Wisconsin protests over shooting of Black man

By Brendan McDermid and Stephen Maturen

KENOSHA, Wis. (Reuters) – Two people died and a third was wounded after street protests over the police shooting of a Black man erupted into gun violence late Tuesday and early Wednesday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, police said.

The Lake Michigan city of about 100,000 has been rocked by civil unrest since Sunday, when police shot Jacob Blake, 29, in the back at point-blank range. The incident, captured on video, has reignited protests over racism and police use of force in the United States.

The third straight night of protests, which coincided with the second night of the Republican National Convention, had appeared to turn calm after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who defied a curfew.

But with a combustible mix of demonstrators still roaming the streets – including self-appointed militias armed with rifles – tensions boiled over shortly before midnight, leading to chaotic scenes of people running and screaming amid a volley of gunfire and others tending to gunshot wounds.

It remained uncertain what prompted the initial gunfire, though it involved a white man with a rifle who wrangled with and fired on other civilians, then walked past several police cars without being arrested, video on social media showed.

The Kenosha protests have drawn mostly peaceful demonstrators under the Black Lives Matter banner, but a range of white and Black people have caused trouble late at night, setting fires, vandalizing public property and bashing vehicles with baseball bats.

The Kenosha Guard, a group identifying itself as a local militia on Facebook, posted a message warning authorities ahead of time they would be present on city streets.

“We are unaware if the armed citizen was answering the Kenosha Guard Militia’s call to arms,” the group later posted on Facebook. “Just like with the shooting of Jacob Blake, we need all the facts and evidence to come out before we make a judgement. God Bless and stay safe Kenosha!”

Democratic Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers deployed 250 members the National Guard to help restore order after the first night of unrest. But U.S. Representative Bryan Steil, a Republican whose district includes Kenosha, said more force was needed.

Republican President Donald Trump had offered to deploy federal law enforcement officers, Steil said.

“Last night the situation went from bad to worse,” Steil said in a statement. “The violence must be stopped.”

Anti-racism protesters also clashed with police in Portland, Oregon, and Louisville, Kentucky, on Tuesday night, part of a wave of national protests that have continued since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.

CHAOS ON VIDEO

Social media videos show crowds in Kenosha chasing the gunman down the street after they believed he had shot another man. The gunman falls to the ground where he comes under attack, but he fires a number of rounds, appearing to hit a man in the torso who falls to the ground and seriously wounding another man in the arm.

As the crowd disperses around him, the man walks freely down the street with his hands in the air and rifle hanging in front of him.

Several police vehicles, apparently responding to the mayhem, drive past the man without stopping him. There have been no reports of an arrest.

Kenosha police said in a statement that two people died and a third gunshot victim was taken to a hospital with serious injuries, though he was expected to live. They pleaded for witnesses to come forward, asking for additional video or photos beyond those posted on social media.

Other videos showed a white man who appeared to be shot in the head as several people rushed to his aid, frantically trying to treat his wound and keep him alive.

Yet another video showed a white man with a severe arm wound sitting on the ground and being aided by an armed man as police approached.

BLAKE ‘FIGHTING FOR LIFE’

The protests began in Kenosha, located between Milwaukee and Chicago, on Sunday after video of Jacob Blake’s shooting that afternoon went viral.

After struggling with police, Blake broke free and walked around his SUV to the driver’s side, where he was shot in the back after opening the door. Three of his young sons were in the car, witnesses said.

Blake was hit by four of the seven shots fired and left paralyzed and “fighting for his life,” his family and lawyers said on Tuesday, hours before the latest round of civil unrest broke out in Kenosha.

Blake underwent another round of lengthy surgery on Tuesday to stabilize his spine with rods and screws, and it may take days or weeks to determine the extent of the damage, Patrick Salvi Sr., a lawyer for Blake’s family, told CNN on Wednesday.

Salvi also said Kenosha officials have been “tight-lipped” about their investigation into the shooting, depriving the family of the police officers’ version of what happened.

“Anyone watching that video cannot understand why in God’s name the officer starts shooting at point-blank range at Jacob,” Salvi said. “We’re going to find out.”

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is leading the investigation and has yet to comment.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta, Nathan Layne, Peter Szekely, Susan Heavey, Kanishka Singh and Ann Maria Shibu; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)

Wisconsin city center burns amid protests over police shooting of Black man

KENOSHA, Wis. (Reuters) – Arsonists set buildings ablaze and torched much of the Black business district in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during a second night of unrest sparked by the wounding of a Black man shot in the back by police as his three young sons looked on.

Kenosha County Board of Supervisors member Zach Rodriguez said the board would hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday on seeking federal help, such as U.S. Marshals Service officers, to quell the unrest after some 300 rioters set fire to buildings overnight.

“Essentially, our city was burned to the ground, building by building,” he told Reuters. “Enough is enough.”

Smoke billowed over central Kenosha after police in riot gear clashed with protesters as they defied a dusk-to-dawn curfew on Monday night and Tuesday morning, near where police gunned down Jacob Blake on Sunday.

Blake, 29, remained in intensive care following surgery and would require more operations, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the Blake family, told ABC News on Tuesday. Blake’s father told the Chicago Sun-Times his son was paralyzed from the waist down.

Video shows Blake walking toward the driver’s side door of his car, away from two officers who were pointing guns to his back. After he opens the door, seven shots ring out with one of the officers tugging at his shirt. It remains unknown what the officers may have seen inside Blake’s car.

But the incident, the latest in a litany of cases to focus attention on police treatment of African Americans, unleashed outrage in the lakefront city of Kenosha, located north of Chicago and south of Milwaukee.

The shooting occurred three months after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was pinned to the street under the knee of a white police officer, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and racism.

Unrest flared again elsewhere in the United States with overnight clashes reported in Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis, while in New York City a group of marchers swarmed the Brooklyn Bridge, social media video showed.

Portland, Oregon, has been the scene of weeks of protests following Floyd’s death that have sometimes turned violent. Police there once again declared a riot late on Monday and arrested several demonstrators after fires were lit at the offices of a police union.

Seattle police said demonstrators set multiple buildings on fire, resulting in at least one arrest and one officer injured.

In Minneapolis, protesters including one man armed with a long gun stopped an armored police vehicle in the street until officers cleared the way with tear gas.

Basketball star LeBron James, who has emerged as a national leader on issues of race, lent his voice to the protests, telling reporters covering the NBA playoffs that “we are scared as Black people in America. … We are terrified.”

“Why does it always have to get to a point where we see the guns firing,” said James, adding he believed police had ample opportunity to subdue Blake.

FIRES, BASEBALL BATS

Black Lives Matter activists are demanding the immediate firing or arrest of the Kenosha officers, who have been placed on administrative leave.

Hours into the curfew, the mostly peaceful demonstration turned violent with some protesters setting off fireworks in front of police. Commercial and government buildings were set ablaze, along with vehicles in car dealership lots.

Local police who had support from National Guard troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and smoke bombs to disperse the crowd, which grew to several hundred, according to protester Porche Bennett, 31, of Kenosha.

Fires destroyed much of the Black business district, Bennett said, adding that the instigators she saw were white.

“It’s people from out of town doing this. We’ve been shopping there since we were kids and they set it on fire,” Bennett said.

Social media images showed both white and Black agitators. Black men swinging baseball bats broke traffic signals and street lamps. White and Black men with bats bashed in the headlights and windshields of a row of cars.

One white man riding a skateboard doused a government truck with an accelerant and set it on fire. Heavily armed white civilians stood guard in front of one business to protect it from vandals.

Kenosha, a city of 100,000 people, is nearly 12 percent Black and about 67 percent white, according to U.S. Census data.

At least one man was injured, shown on social media bleeding from the head as civilians administered aid.

(Reporting by Stephen Maturen in Kenosha, Wis.; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne, Daniel Trotta, Kanishka Singh and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by Steve Gorman and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Chizu Nomiyama)

Global coronavirus cases hit 20 million: Reuters tally

By Gayle Issa

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases pushed past 20 million on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, with the United States, Brazil and India accounting for more than half of all known infections.

The respiratory disease has infected at least four times the average number of people struck down with severe influenza illnesses annually, according to the World Health Organization.

The death toll from COVID-19, meanwhile, at more than 728,000 has outpaced the upper range of annual deaths from the flu.

The Reuters tally, which is based on government reports, shows the disease is accelerating. It took almost six months to reach 10 million cases after the first infection was reported in Wuhan, China, in early January. It took just 43 days to double that tally to 20 million.

Experts believe the official data likely under counts both infections and deaths, particularly in countries with limited testing capacity.

The United States is responsible for around 5 million cases, Brazil 3 million and India 2 million. Russia and South Africa round out the top ten.

The pandemic is accelerating fastest in Latin America which accounts for almost 28% of the world’s cases and more than 30% of deaths, according to the Reuters tally.

With the first wave of the virus yet to peak in some countries and a resurgence of cases in others, governments are still divided in their responses. Some countries are reintroducing strict public health measures, while others continue to relax restrictions.

Health experts expect dilemmas about how to proceed with school, work and social life to last – and restrictions to fluctuate – until a vaccine is available.

The vaccine race has more than 150 candidates being developed and tested around the world with 25 in human clinical trials, according to the World Health Organization.

In the United States, children began returning to their classrooms last week, even as controversy over school safety swirled.

Britain has added both Spain and Belgium to a list of countries from which returning travelers must quarantine at home for 14 days because of fresh upticks in some European locations.

In Asia, China continues to squash surges using strict, local lockdowns, bringing its daily numbers down into the low double digits on the mainland.

Australia has introduced a strict lockdown and night curfew in the city of Melbourne, aiming to stifle an outbreak there. Neighboring New Zealand, where life has largely returned to normal, on the weekend recorded 100 days with no new cases of local transmission.

(Reporting by Gayle Issa; editing by Jane Wardell)

Israelis mark Passover, a celebration of freedom, in virtual isolation

Israelis mark Passover, a celebration of freedom, in virtual isolation
By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Jewish Passover holiday typically draws crowds of Israelis outside to burn heaps of leavened bread, commemorating the Biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt.

But on Wednesday, a coronavirus lockdown meant the streets of Jerusalem and other cities were nearly empty on the first day of the week-long holiday, when they would normally be dotted with fires and columns of smoke.

Israel this week imposed holiday restrictions to try to halt the spread of the disease.

Jews may only celebrate the traditional “seder” meal that kicks off the April 8-15 holiday season with immediate family. Travel between cities is banned until Friday.

A full curfew took effect on Wednesday, just before the seder begins, and will last until Thursday, prompting a dash for last-minute shopping, which saw long lines of Israelis wearing face masks outside grocery stores.

Police have thrown up roadblocks and will deploy drones and helicopters to enforce curbs on movement throughout the lockdown, a spokesman said.

But some areas found workarounds to keep festive traditions alive in a month that will also see Christians celebrate Easter and Muslims mark the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.

The Jerusalem municipality on Wednesday collected leavened products from designated dumpsters outside peoples’ homes and took them away to be burned in a large open area on the city’s outskirts.

A rabbi accompanied by a firefighter tossed a long, fire-tipped stick onto a patch of flammable liquid leading to a pile of the leavened bread products, many still in plastic bags, engulfing the mound in smoke and flames.

LEAVENED BREAD

One Jerusalem man, Daniel Arusti, disposed of a paper bread box in one of the dumpsters outside his house, instead of gathering with his ultra-Orthodox community to burn it in public.

“Next year … when there will hopefully be no (coronavirus) threat, we’ll be able to come and redo public burning of chametz (leavened bread) together, as we should,” Arusti said.

Throughout Passover, Jews abide by special dietary laws which include eating unleavened bread known as matzo. The tradition marks a Book of Exodus tale that the Jews did not have time to prepare leavened bread before leaving for the promised land.

But in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, some Israelis flouted the restrictions and gathered in small groups or by themselves to burn leaven alongside the district’s sandstone homes and concrete walls.

Some ultra-Orthodox have heeded rabbis who, distrusting the state, spurned Health Ministry restrictions.

Unable to gather in person, other Israelis plan to hold the seder with friends and extended family online by video conferencing platforms.

The holiday restrictions added to anti-virus measures that have seen Israelis largely confined to their homes, forcing many businesses to close and sending unemployment to 25%.

Israel has reported more than 9,400 cases and at least 71 deaths from COVID-19, according to Health Ministry data.

(Additional reporting by Suheir Sheikh; Editing by Alison Williams and Janet Lawrence)

Hong Kong students hunker down as government dismisses curfew rumors

By Kate Lamb and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters paralyzed parts of the city for a fourth successive day on Thursday, forcing schools to close and blocking highways, as students built campus barricades and the government dismissed rumors of a curfew.

Protesters have torched vehicles and buildings, hurled petrol bombs at police stations and trains, dropped debris from bridges on to traffic below and vandalized shopping malls and campuses, raising questions about how and when more than five months of unrest can be brought to an end.

A 70-year-old street cleaner who was believed to have been hit in the head by a brick on Wednesday died on Thursday, the hospital said. Police said he was believed to have been hit by “hard objects hurled by masked rioters” during his lunch break.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking in Brazil, said stopping violence was the most urgent task right now for Hong Kong, China’s state CCTV television reported.

He said China continued to firmly support Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam. China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks, but it has vowed to crush any attempts at independence, a demand from a very small minority of protesters.

The unrest was triggered by what many see as the stifling by China of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has blamed Western countries, including Britain and the United States, for stirring up trouble.

Anger grew over perceived police brutality as the protests intensified. Police deny being heavy handed and say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

“HIGH-SPIRITED RIOTERS”

Thousands of students hunkered down at several universities on Thursday, surrounded by piles of food, bricks, petrol bombs, catapults and other homemade weapons.

Police said the Chinese University, in the New Territories, had become a “weapons factory and an arsenal” with bows and arrows and catapults.

“Their acts are another step closer to terrorism,” Chief Superintendent (Public Relations) Tse Chun-chung told a briefing, referring to protests on campuses across the Chinese-ruled city.

He also said police would temporarily avoid directly clashing with “high-spirited rioters” to give themselves a breather and avoid injuries.

Police said arrows were fired at officers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the morning. Several Hong Kong universities announced there would be no classes on campuses for the rest of the year.

During the apparent lull in police action, thousands were milling about on Nathan Road, the main artery leading south through the center of Kowloon to the harbor, building a wall from bricks. Police had fired tear gas earlier on the street earlier in the evening.

Baptist University, next to a People’s Liberation Army base in Kowloon Tong, issued an “urgent appeal”, telling students to stay away from campus.

“Your safety is so dear to our hearts and to your parents’ and friends’ hearts,” it said. “Please stay away from harm’s way.”

China’s Global Times tabloid, owned by the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Daily, said on Twitter that the Hong Kong government was expected to announce a weekend curfew after some of the worst violence in decades in the former British colony.

It deleted the post after a short time. The Hong Kong government said the rumors were “totally unfounded”.

PETROL BOMBS AND BRICKS

Hundreds of protesters occupied roads in the city’s business district, home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate, in the middle of the day.

Across the harbor, black-clad protesters and students maintained their blockade of major roads, including the entrance to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel that links Hong Kong island to the Kowloon area, and a highway between Kowloon and the rural New Territories.

Police fired tear gas near the tunnel early on Thursday to try to clear the protesters. Protesters threw petrol bombs at the Kowloon-side tunnel turnstiles late in the evening and the tunnel remained closed.

At the Polytechnic University, near the same tunnel entrance, hundreds of students wearing gas masks readied for confrontation. They were practising throwing petrol bombs and archery in a half-empty swimming pool.

Boxes of petrol bombs were placed at vantage points overlooking roads.

Violence has escalated in recent days, with police shooting and wounding one protester at close range and one man described as a “rioter” dousing a man with petrol before setting him on fire. Several others have been wounded.

The man who was shot was in stable condition. The man who was lit on fire suffered burns to his torso and head, and was in critical condition.

(Reporting by Sarah Wu, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree, Clare Jim, Ryan Chang and Felix Tam; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Dallas orders curfew after tornado shreds homes; thousands without power

Dallas orders curfew after tornado shreds homes; thousands without power
(Reuters) – Police declared a curfew on Monday in parts of Dallas where a powerful tornado tore apart homes and flipped cars, leaving tens of thousands without power for a second night.

Three people were reported hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries after the Sunday storm ripped through north Dallas with maximum wind speeds of 140 mph (225 kph), according to the National Weather Service.

Emergency management workers went door to door in areas such as Preston Hollow and Richardson, checking homes without roofs or crushed by fallen trees, tagging structures with orange spray paint.

“#DallasTornado you took my job! my school!” one Twitter user, Monica Badillo, posted, along with images of shattered windows and debris at Primrose School in Preston Hollow, where she said she worked.

The Dallas Police Department (DPD) asked residents to stay indoors between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and told non-residents to stay out of areas where the twister left a miles-long swath of destruction.

“DPD is urging residents to remain vigilant and not enter the impacted areas for their own safety,” the department said, adding it had received reports of looting that had so far turned out to be false.

Dozens of residents were expected to spend the night at a leisure complex turned into a shelter near Love Field Airport, city authorities said.

The winds were powerful enough to cave in a Home Depot <HD.N> do-it-yourself store, leaving a mangled mess of ceiling beams.

The tornado caused traffic chaos, with numerous roads blocked and dozens of stop lights out, transport authorities said.

Fire rescue officials said it would take another day to make a final assessment of the destruction, with less than half of the affected area checked by nightfall.

About 42,000 people were without power by Monday evening, according to utility firm Oncor, which pressed helicopters and drones into its effort to find and fix damaged lines.

Some residents should prepare for a possible multi-day outage as destroyed electric equipment is rebuilt, it added.

Although no fatalities were reported in the Dallas area, severe storms were blamed for at least three deaths in Oklahoma and one in Arkansas, state authorities said.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Gabriella Borter in New York and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Clarence Fernandez)

Mandatory evacuation ordered as Hawaii eruption hits four-week mark

As volcanic fissures spurts molten rock into the air, lava slowly approaches a home on Nohea Street in the Leilani Estates near Pahoa, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Garcia

By Jolyn Rosa

HONOLULU (Reuters) – The Hawaii community hardest hit by the Kilauea Volcano was ordered sealed off under a strict new mandatory evacuation on Thursday as the eruption marked its fourth week with no end in sight.

The Big Island’s mayor, Harry Kim, declared a roughly 17-block swath of the lava-stricken Leilani Estates subdivision off-limits indefinitely and gave any residents remaining there 24 hours to leave or face possible arrest.

The mandatory evacuation zone lies within a slightly larger area that was already under a voluntary evacuation and curfew.

The latest order was announced a day after police arrested a 62-year-old Leilani Estates resident who fired a handgun over the head of a younger man from the same community, apparently believing his neighbor was an intruder or looter.

The confrontation on Tuesday was recorded on cell phone video that later went viral.

But the mandatory evacuation was “decided prior to that incident,” said David Mace, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency currently assigned to the Hawaii County Civil Defense authority.

Civil defense officials have previously said about 2,000 residents in and around Leilani Estates were displaced at the outset of the current eruption, which began on May 3.

But the total number of evacuees was estimated to have risen to about 2,500 after authorities ushered residents from the nearby Kapoho area as a precaution on Wednesday, as a lava flow threatened to cut off a key access road.

At least 75 homes — most of them in Leilani Estates — have been devoured by streams of red-hot molten rock creeping from about two dozen large volcanic vents, or fissures, that have opened in the ground since Kilauea rumbled back to life four weeks ago. Lava flows also have knocked out power and telephone lines in the region, disrupting communications.

Besides spouting fountains of lava around the clock, the fissures have released high levels of toxic sulfur dioxide gas on a near constant basis, posing an ongoing health hazard. Meanwhile, the main summit crater has periodically erupted in clouds of volcanic ash that create breathing difficulties and other problems for residents living downwind.

The heightened volcanic activity has been accompanied by frequent earthquakes, as magma — the term for lava before it reaches the surface — pushes its way up from deep inside the earth and exerts tremendous force underground.

After a month of continual eruptions at Kilauea’s summit and along its eastern flank, geologists say they have no idea how much longer it will last.

“There’s no sign we’re getting that anything is going to slow down at the moment,” Wendy STOVL, a vulcanologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, told reporters on a conference call on Thursday. “We don’t see any changes occurring.”

An aerial view of Kilauea Volcano's summit caldera and an ash plume billowing from Halema'uma'u, a crater within the caldera, May 27, 2018. Courtesy of the Civil Air Patrol/USGS/Handout via REUTERS

An aerial view of Kilauea Volcano’s summit caldera and an ash plume billowing from Halema’uma’u, a crater within the caldera, May 27, 2018. Courtesy of the Civil Air Patrol/USGS/Handout via REUTERS

The island’s mayor on Wednesday renewed an emergency proclamation for 60 more days, allowing construction of temporary shelters and other relief projects to proceed on an expedited basis, without reviews and permits normally required.

The month-old eruption of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, followed an eruption cycle that had continued almost nonstop for 35 years.

Stovall said geologists now believe the latest upheaval should be classified as a separate volcanic event, though an official determination has yet to be made.

(Reporting by Jolyn Rosa; Additonal reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)