California wildfire victims lawyer calls PG&E plan ‘totally unacceptable’

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – PG&E Corp’s plan to cap payments to victims of California wildfires blamed on the power producer is “totally unacceptable,” a lawyer representing victims in the utility’s bankruptcy case said on Tuesday.

San Francisco-based PG&E unveiled on Monday a proposed plan to exit bankruptcy that included payments capped at $8.4 billion for wildfire claims.

The plan forces fire victims and government entities to seek compensation from the same fund, which will dilute payouts for everyone, said Cecily Dumas, a BakerHostetler lawyer who represents the official committee of tort claimants in PG&E’s bankruptcy.

State investigators have blamed PG&E transmission lines with causing wildfires in 2017 and 2018 including the Camp Fire that killed 85 people.

Dumas said that government agencies such as the Department of the Interior and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, could have billions of dollars in claims, leaving far less for victims than $8.4 billion.

At the same time, PG&E said it intends to pay other unsecured creditors such as noteholders in full in cash when its plan goes into effect next year. “That’s unfair,” said Dumas.

A spokesman for PG&E did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The company also said it planned to cap payments at $8.5 billion for reimbursing insurers that had paid victims and at $1 billion for local governments.

PG&E said it would finance the plan through the sale of $14 billion of stock, and PG&E said large banks expressed confidence that $30 billion could be raised in both debt and equity.

Shares of PG&E Corp fell 3% on Tuesday to $10.86 each.

Court documents showed that Knighthead Capital Management, one of PG&E’s largest shareholders, was prepared to buy up to $1 billion of the company’s stock on behalf of funds it manages. Funds associated with Abrams Capital Partners, Riva Capital Partners and Whitecrest Partners were prepared to invest $500 million combined in PG&E stock, according to court documents.

The plan must be approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali in San Francisco. Companies in Chapter 11 generally seek broad support from creditors.

Dumas said the plan also violates the so-called absolute priority rule, a bedrock principle of bankruptcy that requires that creditors get paid in full before shareholders receive anything.

She said the court should allow wildfire victims to choose between the PG&E plan and an alternative bondholder proposal.

Bondholders led by Elliott Management and Pacific Investment Management Co have proposed a $30 billion plan that included $16 billion in compensation for all PG&E’s pre-bankruptcy wildfire claims.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. charges FEMA official, contractor in Puerto Rico corruption case

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced corruption charges against a senior government official and a contractor who worked to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

In a 15-count indictment, U.S. prosecutors allege that Ahsha Tribble, who oversaw the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s efforts to restore electrical power after the hurricane, accepted helicopter rides, hotel rooms and other bribes from Donald Ellison, president of a company called Cobra Acquisitions LLC, which performed much of the work.

In return, Tribble pressured FEMA and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to steer work to Ellison’s firm, prosecutors say. Cobra was awarded two contracts worth $1.8 million, according to federal prosecutors in Puerto Rico.

Prosecutors also charged Jovanda Patterson, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff who they say evaluated Cobra’s work even as she was trying to get a job with the company. Patterson also lied about her government pay to secure a higher salary at Cobra, they say.

FEMA and Cobra’s parent company, Mammoth Energy Services Inc., both said they were cooperating with the investigation.

Tribble and Patterson were not immediately reachable for comment. Attorneys for Ellison did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Charges filed against Tribble and Ellison include conspiracy to commit bribery, honest-services wire fraud and disaster fraud.

As part of the investigation, prosecutors have $4.4 million, a sailboat, and construction equipment from Ellison, according to the announcement.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

More dead expected in destroyed Florida Panhandle towns after Michael

A man carries food and water past a building damaged by Hurricane Michael in Parker, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Rod Nickel

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Dozens of people remained missing on Sunday in Florida Panhandle communities reduced to ruins by Hurricane Michael as rescuers said they expected the death toll to rise and survivors grappled with power outages and shortages of food and water.

A destroyed home is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A destroyed home is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Already at least 18 deaths in four states have been blamed on the hurricane as rescue crews using cadaver dogs and heavy equipment searched through collapsed homes in small towns such as Mexico Beach and Panama City for more victims.

So far one person has been confirmed killed in Mexico Beach, which took a direct hit from the massive storm, but rescuers have been hobbled by blocked roads and huge piles of rubble from searching much of the town.

“If we lose only one life, to me that’s going to be a miracle,” Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey told local media.

Cathey said more than 250 residents had stayed behind when Michael came ashore on Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, one of the most powerful storms to make landfall in the continental United States since records have been kept.

A man walks out of his home following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A man walks out of his home following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The mayor told ABC News that 46 people out of the town of some 1,000 remained missing or unaccounted for as of Sunday. Search and rescue volunteers have already located hundreds of people initially reported missing last week across the Panhandle.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, who toured the devastated areas by helicopter with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)officials, said the top priority remained search and rescue efforts.

Scott said crews were also distributing food, water and fuel to residents who have faced long lines for supplies.

More than 1,700 search and rescue workers were deployed, Scott’s office said, including seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances.

In Panama City, one of the hardest-hit communities, Fire Chief Alex Baird said search and rescue teams were now in “recovery mode” after largely giving up hope of finding any more survivors.

Electricity and telephone service were being slowly restored, but it could be weeks before power is restored to the state’s most damaged areas.

A destroyed boat is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A destroyed boat is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Two Florida prisons housing a total of nearly 3,000 inmates were evacuated and closed at least temporarily after suffering structural damage from Michael, the Florida Department of Corrections said.

The department said no staff or inmates were injured during the storm and all had access to sufficient food and water.

President Donald Trump is expected to visit both Florida and Georgia early this week to inspect the damage, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, and the White House said late on Saturday the president was fully committed to helping state and local agencies with the recovery.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Florida, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Hurricane Michael’s death toll could rise as Florida searches intensify

First responders and residents walk along a main street following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Devika Krishna Kumar

PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (Reuters) – Rescuers used heavy equipment to clear debris in the Florida Panhandle towns hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, searching for survivors amid expectations the death toll of 12 from the powerful storm likely will climb.

Rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used dogs, drones and global positioning satellites in the search.

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

So far, no counties along the devastated northwest Florida coast have reported deaths related to the storm. That could change, as efforts to assess damage and look for casualties in the worst-hit communities have been hampered by downed utility lines and roads blocked by debris and fallen trees.

“I think you’re going to see it climb,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said of the death count at a news conference. “We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas.”

Michael charged ashore on Wednesday near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland and caused widespread flooding.

Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were reduced to naked concrete foundations or piles of debris.

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida's northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O'Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O’Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Although weaker as it pushed over the southeastern United States, the storm carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It killed at least 12 people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

In Virginia, the remnants of the hurricane swept away four people in floodwaters. A firefighter also was killed when hit by a truck as he was trying to help an accident victim, the Washington Post reported.

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.

It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida, such as Panama City.

Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.

“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”

By early Friday morning the remnants of Michael had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

HOSPITAL PROBLEMS

The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore apart entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle.

Many of the injured in Florida were taken to Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach.

Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center treated some people but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it was dealing with its own hurricane effects.

The hospital was running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows, according to a spokesman for the hospital’s owner, HCA Healthcare Inc.

Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 12 miles (19 km) east of Mexico Beach, was flooded by Michael, which snapped boats in two and hurled a large ship onto the shore, residents said.

“We had houses that were on one side of the street and now they’re on the other,” said Mayor Bo Patterson, estimating that 1,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed in his town of 3,500 people.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 129 people.

Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan, and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares), said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

It was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Fla.; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Fla., Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry)

U.S. pushes back national wireless alert test to Oct. 3

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a reception for Congressional Medal of Honor recipients in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration has delayed until next month plans to send a message to all U.S. cellphones testing a previously unused presidential alert system that aims to warn the public about national emergencies, officials said on Monday.

The test message was originally scheduled for 2:18 p.m. EDT (1818 GMT)on Thursday but is being pushed back to the same time on Oct. 3 because of response efforts to Tropical Depression Florence, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said in a statement.

Florence came ashore in North Carolina on Friday as a hurricane and has caused widespread flooding in North and South Carolina.

FEMA, which will send the alert, said last week that the messages would bear the headline “Presidential Alert,” and that phones will make a loud tone and have a special vibration.

The test has been scheduled to ensure that the alert system would work in the event of a national emergency, and U.S. cellphone users will not be able to opt out. The message will read: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

Former President Barack Obama signed a law in 2016 requiring FEMA to create a system allowing the president to send cellphone alerts regarding public safety emergencies.

The country’s wireless emergency alert system was started in 2012 and has issued over 36,000 alerts for situations such as missing children, extreme weather and natural disasters, but never a presidential directive.

Cellphone users can opt out of natural disaster or missing children alerts.

In its statement last week on the test messages, FEMA said the presidential alerts can be used only for national emergencies and the president has sole responsibility for determining when such alerts are used.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Carolina coast battening down, boarding up as hurricane nears

Caitie Sweeney of Myrtle Beach texts her family while visiting the beach ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. REUTERS/Randall Hill

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Beach communities in North and South Carolina emptied out on Wednesday as Hurricane Florence threatened to unleash pounding surf and potentially deadly flooding as the most powerful storm to make a direct hit on the southeastern states in decades.

Florence had maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) and was on a trajectory that showed its center most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina by Friday, the National Hurricane Center said.

Updated NHC forecasts showed the storm lingering near the coast, bringing days of heavy rains that could bring intense inland flooding from South Carolina, where some areas could see as much as 40 inches (1m) of rain, to Virginia.

Florence is rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) invoked a former boxing champion to warn residents that it would bring “a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.”

“The time to prepare is almost over,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper at a Wednesday morning news conference. “Disaster is at the doorstep and it’s coming in.”

More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate the coastline of the three states, while university campuses, schools and factories were being shuttered.

The NHC said the first tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour (63 kph) would hit the region early on Thursday with the storm’s center reaching the coast Friday. At 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Wednesday the storm was located about 530 miles (855 km) southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.

The storm surge, or wind-driven seawater, poses a huge danger, FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“People do not live and survive to tell the tale about what their experience is like with storm surge,” he said. “It’s the most deadly part of the hurricane that comes in.”

FEMA FUNDS MOVED

MSNBC reported the Trump administration had diverted nearly $10 billion from FEMA to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which leads border enforcement. But that has not affected the response to Florence, Byard told a news conference.

He said there was “well over $20 billion” in FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter warned of the storm’s dangers and praised his administration’s handling of past hurricanes, rejecting criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico. Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.

“Hurricane Florence is looking even bigger than anticipated,” Trump said. “We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!”

State and federal officials have frequently urged residents in the target zone to evacuate but there was resistance along the coast.

“I’m not approaching Florence from fear or panic,” said Brad Corpening, 35, who planned to ride out the storm in his boarded-up delicatessen in Wilmington. “It’s going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through.”

The last hurricane rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson to plow directly into North Carolina was Hazel in 1954, a devastating storm that killed 19 people.

Emergency preparations in the area included setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so that all major roads led away from shore and getting 16 nuclear reactors ready in the three-state region for the storm.

(For graphic on Hurricane Florence heads toward Carolinas, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZ5m1v)

(For graphic on forecast rainfall in inches from Hurricane Florence, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZFKSb)

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

‘Monster’ Hurricane Florence to pummel U.S. Southeast for days

Hurricane Florence is seen from the International Space Station as it churns in the Atlantic Ocean towards the east coast of the United States, September 10, 2018. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Hurricane Florence, on track to become the first Category 4 storm to make a direct hit on North Carolina in six decades, howled closer to shore on Tuesday, threatening to unleash deadly pounding surf, days of torrential rain and severe flooding.

Sailors cast off mooring lines to the Command hospital ship USNS Comfort as the ship evacuates Naval Station Norfolk in preparation for Hurricane Florence in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S., September 11, 2018. Jennifer Hunt/US Navy/Handout via REUTERS

Sailors cast off mooring lines to the Command hospital ship USNS Comfort as the ship evacuates Naval Station Norfolk in preparation for Hurricane Florence in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S., September 11, 2018. Jennifer Hunt/US Navy/Handout via REUTERS

Fierce winds and massive waves are expected to lash the coasts of North and South Carolina and Virginia even before Florence makes landfall by early Friday, bringing a storm surge as much as 13 feet (4 meters), the National Hurricane Center in Miami warned. Catastrophic floods could follow if the storm stalls inland, it said.

Although Florence was still days from arrival, authorities took extraordinary measures to move people out of harm’s way. More than 1 million residents have been ordered to evacuate from the coastline of the three states, while university campuses, schools, and factories were being shuttered.

The U.S. Coast Guard closed ports in Wilmington and Morehead City, North Carolina and Hampton Roads, Virginia to inbound vessels greater than 500 tons and was requiring vessels of that size to leave if they did not have permission to be in the ports.

Packing maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour (225 km per hour), the storm ranked as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale and was expected to grow stronger and larger over the next few days, the NHC said.

“This storm is a monster,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said. “Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster.”

He cited forecasts showing Florence was likely to stall over North Carolina, “bringing days and days of rain.”

To hasten evacuations from coastal South Carolina, officials reversed the flow of traffic on some highways so all major roads led away from shore.

Kathleen O’Neal, a resident of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Barrier Islands, said she, her husband and son would ride out the storm. “A lot of local people are staying,” she said of the island, which is reachable only by ferry or plane.

John Muchmore helps to lay sandbags at the Afterdeck condos ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Garden City Beach, South Carolina, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

John Muchmore helps to lay sandbags at the Afterdeck condos ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Garden City Beach, South Carolina, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

LONG-TERM POWER OUTAGES POSSIBLE

Maps of Florence’s trajectory showed its center most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina. The last Category 4 hurricane to plow directly into North Carolina was Hazel in 1954, a devastating storm that killed 19 people and destroyed some 15,000 homes.

NHC forecasts showed the effects of Florence would be widely felt, with tropical storm-force winds extending nearly 300 miles across three states. A hurricane warning was posted for most of the Carolina coast north to the Virginia border.

In addition to wind-driven storm surges of seawater, Florence could dump up to 35 inches (89 cm) in some spots as it moves inland, forecasters said.

Communities in Florence’s path could lose electricity for weeks due to downed power lines and flooded equipment, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long said.

Utilities deployed crews and gear in advance, with workers en route to the region from at least 15 states, according to trade group, the Edison Electric Institute.

Crews also prepared 16 nuclear reactors in the three-state region for the storm. One power station, Duke Energy Corp’s Brunswick plant, the closest to the area where landfall is forecast, faced a likely shutdown as a precaution. Shutdowns also were possible at two more plants in the path of predicted hurricane-force winds.

The American Red Cross said more than 700 workers were headed to the region while shelters were set up to house those unable to flee. A hospital in Hampton, Virginia, was transferring patients to safer places.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed declarations of emergency for North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, freeing up federal resources for storm response.

“We are sparing no expense. We are totally prepared,” Trump said at the White House.

Trump faced severe criticism for his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico. Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.

 

U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on hurricane preparations as FEMA Administrator Brock Long points to the potential track of Hurricane Florence on a graphic at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on hurricane preparations as FEMA Administrator Brock Long points to the potential track of Hurricane Florence on a graphic at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

COMMERCIAL OPERATIONS

Days before its arrival, Florence was already disrupting commercial operations.

Boeing Co suspended work on Tuesday at the South Carolina plant where it assembles 787 widebody jetliners, and a Volvo automobile plant in South Carolina’s evacuation zone was also closed, company officials said.

Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL] said it would shut down the world’s largest hog-slaughtering facility in Tar Heel, North Carolina, on Thursday and Friday due to the hurricane.

Residents prepared by boarding up their homes and stocking up on food, water and other essentials, stripping grocery store shelves of merchandise. Many gasoline stations were running low on fuel.

“I’m scared we’ll get 30 inches or more of rain,” said Carol Trojniar, 69, a longtime Wilmington resident and retired real estate agent who has never experienced a Category 4 hurricane. “What is flooding going to do to our home, our city?”

Trojniar said she and her husband were packing up belongings and plan to stack sandbags around their single-floor home in Wilmington’s eerily named Landfall neighborhood near the ocean before checking into a hotel to ride out the storm, with plenty of wine.

“Where else can we go? If we try to leave, we’ll just get stuck in the rain,” she said.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Anna Driver in Holden Beach, North Carolina, Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina, Liz Hampton in Houston, Susan Heavey in Washington, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Scott DiSavino and Alden Bentley in New York, Nichola Groom and Alex Dobzinskis in Los Angeles and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Nick Zieminski, Bill Trott and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)

Judge rejects bid to block end of aid to Hurricane Maria evacuees

FILE PHOTO: Ysamar Figueroa carrying her son Saniel, looks at the damage in the neighbourhood after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in Canovanas, Puerto Rico September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

BOSTON (Reuters) – A federal judge on Thursday rejected a request to block the U.S. government from cutting off aid to hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and are living in hotels and motels across the United States.

But U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, ordered the government to continue providing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria until Sept. 13 so they could prepare.

Lawyers for a group of Puerto Ricans pursuing the lawsuit had argued that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) decision to terminate aid violated their due process rights and contended that they being discriminated against.

But Hillman said they were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claims and rejected their request for an injunction that would require FEMA to continue providing aid to evacuees until they obtained temporary or permanent housing.

FILE PHOTO: A broken traffic light, a street sign and branches lie on the street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A broken traffic light, a street sign and branches lie on the street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

“While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result,” Hillman wrote.

He said he could not required FEMA “to do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done,” but could only order it to do what the law requires.

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour) on Sept. 20, causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the already economically struggling U.S. territory.

On Tuesday, the official death toll from Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean island in almost a century, was raised to nearly 3,000.

According to FEMA, 1,044 families displaced by Maria as of Wednesday were receiving aid under a program that pays for hotel lodging. Since its launch the program in total has helped 7,032 families displaced by Maria, FEMA said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

After disaster alert failures, U.S. moves toward national system

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. flag flies over a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – In California last month, two young children and their great-grandmother died in a wildfire that family members say they never saw coming or heard an alert.

In January, thousands of people were panic-stricken in Hawaii by a false alarm that a ballistic missile was about to strike the islands.

These and other critical failures have prompted a review of disaster alerts in the United States, which largely operate at a local level, underlining the potential need for a nationwide system, as scientists warn changing weather may bring more hurricanes and wildfires.

“For all practical purposes we don’t really have a national warning system,” Dennis Mileti, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Reuters.

Mileti, a nationally recognized expert on disaster preparedness, is on a panel the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) convened this summer to improve the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, the platform established a decade ago for all U.S. emergency alerts.

Previewing its findings to Reuters, Mileti said the panel will propose to Congress to revamp national warning systems, and in cases such as ballistic missile alerts, take them out of the hands of local officials.

A half-century ago, before 24-hour cable news networks or the internet, the three main television broadcast stations which could be counted on to issue standard emergency messages to the entire U.S. population

Now, people in the path of natural disasters typically get alerts from a patchwork of state and local agencies, using different platforms and messaging systems, often manned by part-time employees, Mileti said.

For example, in the state of California, warnings are issued by counties that sometimes outsource the job to someone else.

“You don’t get too many good warnings in local communities where” untrained amateurs are in charge, Mileti said.

Human error is another key issue.

Last year, some residents of California’s Sonoma County failed to get timely notice of an approaching wildfire that killed 17 people after authorities, concerned about traffic becoming snarled along evacuation routes, decided not to notify everyone at once.

A community of 10,000 people not in imminent danger from the Carr Fire in Northern California, meanwhile, was evacuated by accident when “somebody hit the wrong button,” Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told the Sacramento Bee.

And in January, many Hawaiians and tourists fled their homes and hotels when an emergency bulletin – sent by mistake – blared out: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

A U.S. government report later blamed the false alarm on human error and inadequate safeguards.

‘RISING THREATS’

California Gov. Jerry Brown, after touring the fiery calamity near Redding on Saturday, called on the state legislature to enact “the best alert system we can get … given the rising threats on the changing of the weather, the climate.”

Many scientists say global warming is not only causing more extreme weather but more expensive disasters and the need for more sophisticated alerting systems.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria combined with wildfires in the West and other calamities to make 2017 the most expensive year on record for disasters in the United States, costing $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

False alarms and human error can pose a problematic cost-benefit equation, said Adam Rose, a Professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy and predictive analysis expert.

“Is it better to be safe and have some evacuations that turn out be unnecessary, which can incur some economic costs and even create a slim danger of death or injury? Or is it better to not be safe enough?”

Mileti said his panel will recommend standardizing warning messages, so people in harm’s way can immediately identify the sender, the danger and what action they should take. Improved training of alert system operators can cut down on human error, he said.

Rather than be told simply to “evacuate,” for example, residents of a community facing flash floods, a tsunami, tornado or flames from a wildfire would be told to leave immediately and to go where they can find safe ground.

Mileti pointed to a National Institute of Standards and Technology investigation into a tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, killing over 150 people. It found residents were given only a five-minute warning the twister was about to strike.

“Many of the bodies first responders found were found holding cellphones, trying to get additional information,” Mileti said.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and G Crosse)

Judge orders further extension of aid to Puerto Rico storm evacuees

FILE PHOTO: Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria are seen in Lares, Puerto Rico, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Nate Raymond

WORCESTER, Mass. (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday extended until Aug. 31 an order preventing the eviction of hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and have been living in hotels and motels across the United States.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, issued the order after hearing arguments over whether he should issue a longer-term injunction barring the federal government from cutting off housing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had planned to end the assistance program on June 30. Hillman’s decision on Wednesday extended a previously-imposed temporary restraining order that allowed the families to remain in hotels until checkout time on Aug. 7.

Hillman extended the order to allow the government time to respond to new arguments raised by lawyers representing evacuees in a proposed class action challenging FEMA’s actions.

“It’s going to take us time sort through this,” he said.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 kph), causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the already economically struggling U.S. territory.

According to FEMA, 1,040 families displaced by Maria are currently receiving aid under a program that pays for hotel lodging. In total, the program has since its launch helped 7,032 families displaced by Maria, FEMA said.

Critics have said the federal government responded poorly to the disaster and provided inadequate aid. They contend that President Donald Trump’s administration viewed Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens, a claim it denies.

Four Puerto Ricans are pursuing the lawsuit, which was filed in June and contends that FEMA’s actions violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Lawyers for the displaced Puerto Ricans argued in court that FEMA is legally obligated to continue to provide assistance to the evacuees, who they contend face potential homelessness if the program is prematurely ended without providing other assistance.

“They have no place to go back to, and what they’re seeking is assistance from the agency that already promised to give it to them,” said Natasha Bannan, an attorney with the advocacy organization LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

But Danielle Wolfson Young, a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department representing FEMA, argued that the families had no right to continued assistance.

“FEMA has the discretion to implement and also to determine when to end the program,” she said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in; Worcester; Editing by Bill Berkrot)