Storm Eta drenches Tampa Bay, threatens more flooding as it moves offshore

(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Eta drenched Florida’s west coast on Thursday after making landfall north of Tampa Bay with 50 mile-per-hour (80 kph) winds, but the system weakened slightly as it moved across the northeastern part of the state and into the Atlantic.

Eta, the 28th named storm of the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC), made its fourth landfall at around 4 a.m. on Thursday near Cedar Key, Florida, after it already slammed Central America, Cuba and the upper Florida Keys.

The storm had moved offshore into the Atlantic and was about 40 miles (65 km) north-northeast of Jacksonville on Thursday with maximum sustained winds of 40 miles per hour (65 kph), the NHC said.

Storm surge from Eta in Tampa Bay reached 3 to 4 feet (0.9-1.2 m) above ground inundation, the NHC’s Storm Surge Unit said. The NHC forecasted that swells along the Florida Gulf coast today and the southeastern U.S. coast tonight would be “life-threatening.”

Flooded streets in downtown Tampa resembled lakes and sailboats in Gulfport, a city on Tampa Bay, were beached and tipped over on Thursday, photos on Twitter showed.

The storm was expected to drop an additional 1 inch to 3 inches ((2.5-7.6 cm) of rain over the Florida peninsula on Thursday, adding up to a total of 20 to 25 inches of rainfall in parts of South Florida.

“Localized bands of heavy rainfall will continue to impact portions of the Florida Peninsula today, resulting in isolated flash and urban flooding, especially across previously inundated areas,” the NHC said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Trump administration denies California request for more wildfire aid

By Nichola Groom

(Reuters) – The Trump administration has denied a request by California for additional wildfire recovery relief, saying the September blazes, part of the state’s record-setting fire year, were not severe enough.

“The early September fires were not of such severity and magnitude to exceed the combined capabilities of the state, affected local governments, voluntary agencies and other responding federal agencies,” Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said in an emailed statement on Friday.

More than 4.1 million acres have burned in California this year, shattering a previous record.

President Donald Trump issued a major disaster declaration for some parts of the state in August. California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent him a request on Sept. 28 seeking another major disaster declaration for seven counties affected by fires that ignited earlier that month.

A major disaster declaration provides federal assistance for individuals, infrastructure and emergency and permanent work, according to FEMA’s web site.

“The more recent and separate California submission was not supported by the relevant data that States must provide for approval and the President concurred with the FEMA Administrator’s recommendation,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an email.

California officials were not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by David Gregorio)

After the floods, assessing Hurricane Sally’s damage

By Devika Krishna Kumar and Jennifer Hiller

GULF SHORES, Ala./HOUSTON (Reuters) – As an Alabama resident, Toby Wallace has seen his fair share of hurricane damage working for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where he handles flood insurance claims.

But that did not prepare him for Hurricane Sally, which flipped his camper and pushed it into his home, breaking off the front steps. High winds drove water through vents and roof, flooding a room.

“It’s gonna be a lot of cleaning,” said Wallace, 49.

Wallace and thousands of other residents along the U.S. Gulf Coast are just starting to tally the damage from Hurricane Sally, which could come in anywhere from $8 billion to $10 billion, well above earlier estimates of $2 billion to $3 billion, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the cost of their damage.

Hurricanes are normally associated with massive wind gusts and rains on the coast, but inland rains causing floods over a vast region can make a storm even worse, as rivers and streams over spill, flooding communities along the way and causing the damage to as much as double.

The storm made landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama on Wednesday morning as a Category 2 hurricane but continued carrying heavy rain inland as far north as Virginia on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

Sally’s immediate impact likely caused around $5 billion in damage and cleanup costs, Watson said. The storm has moved away from the coast but will bring several more inches of rain to the U.S. Southeast before dissipating.

“If you’re sitting on a river five miles inland, you’ve got the wind and two feet of rain dumped on you, then four to six days later a few feet of water comes down the river,” Watson said. Inland rains also could affect cotton and peanut harvesting, as five counties in central Georgia had radar totals over 10 inches in 12 hours, Watson said.

Several rivers in Alabama and Florida have not yet crested and are not expected to reach “major flood” stages until Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Evidence of water damage was rampant as the floods receded along the coast. The facade of an eight-floor apartment building in Gulf Shores was completely blown off, and damaged kitchens and bedrooms were visible, with furniture soaked from the torrential rains that pelted the area on Wednesday.

Wallace of FEMA said that more recently built homes were constructed with some elevation from the ground, so their damage is wind-related.

Numerous buildings had their roofs torn off, and rebuilding electrical, sewage and water systems will cost money.

In Gulf Shores, Paula Hendrickson, 70, evacuated her home near the water and came slightly more inland to her sister’s, thinking it would be safer.

But the wind ripped a fan off the front balcony of her sister’s home and damaged the roof, and Hendrickson’s car ended up flooded by saltwater and is likely a total loss.

“If you’ve been in an airplane that hits turbulence, that’s exactly how it felt. On and off, on and off. All night long,” Hendrickson said, adding, “I’ll never go through it again.”

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller and Devika Krishna Kumar; editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Crews battle wildfires in U.S. West as smoke travels the world

By Deborah Bloom and Brad Brooks

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – As fire crews continued to battle deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, thousands of evacuees in Oregon and other states faced a daily struggle while scientists in Europe tracked the smoke on Wednesday as it spread on an intercontinental scale.

With state resources stretched to their limit, President Donald Trump on Tuesday night approved a request from Oregon’s governor for a federal disaster declaration, bolstering federal assistance for emergency response and relief efforts.

Dozens of fires have burned some 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of tinder-dry brush, grass and woodlands in Oregon, California and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 34 people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obligated more than $1.2 million in mission assignments to bring relief to Oregon and has deployed five urban search and rescue teams to the wildfire-torn region, the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

Search teams scoured incinerated homes for the missing as firefighters kept up their exhausting battle.

The wildfires, which officials and scientists have described as unprecedented in scope and ferocity, have filled the region’s skies with smoke and soot, compounding a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists in Europe tracked the smoke as it bore down on the continent, underscoring the magnitude of the disaster. The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) is monitoring the scale and intensity of the fires and the transport of the resultant smoke across the United States and beyond.

“The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration,” CAMS Senior Scientist Mark Parrington said in a statement.

CAMS said it uses satellite observations of aerosols, carbon monoxide and other constituents of smoke to monitor and forecast its movement through the atmosphere.

Eight deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, which became the latest and most concentrated hot spot in a larger summer outbreak of fires across the entire western United States. The Pacific Northwest was hardest hit.

The fires roared to life in California in mid-August, and erupted across Oregon and Washington around Labor Day last week, many of them sparked by catastrophic lightning storms and stoked by record-breaking heat waves and bouts of howling winds.

Weather conditions improved early this week, enabling firefighters to begin to make headway in efforts to contain and tamp down the blazes.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said 16,600 firefighters were still battling 25 major fires on Tuesday, after achieving full containment around the perimeter of other large blazes.

Firefighters in the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Los Angeles waged an all-out campaign to save the famed Mount Wilson Observatory and an adjacent complex of broadcast transmission towers from flames that crept near the site.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Deborah Bloom, Shannon Stapleton and Adrees Latif; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Tropical Storm Laura to become a hurricane as it heads toward U.S.

By Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Laura strengthened in the Caribbean on Monday and was poised to accelerate into a hurricane, while Tropical Storm Marco weakened sooner than expected, sparing the U.S. Gulf Coast from two simultaneous hurricanes that had been forecast.

The dual storms have taken offline nearly 10% of the United States’ crude oil production, as energy companies shuttered operations to ride out the weather.

The changed forecast from the National Hurricane Center bought a little more time for residents along Louisiana’s coast to prepare for the one-two punch. Marco could still bring dangerous winds and rain on Monday evening, with Laura forecast to make landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Wednesday night.

“Having two storms in the Gulf at one particular time made the last few days pretty stressful,” said Archie Chaisson, the president of Lafourche Parish on the Louisiana coast.

The coronavirus pandemic had complicated preparations, Chaisson said, with officials modifying their shelter plans to ensure social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.

HOWLING WINDS

Laura traced the southern coast of Cuba on Monday morning, but the brunt of the storm was offshore, helping the largest island nation in the Caribbean avoid serious damage after Laura killed at least 10 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The storm downed trees in Cuba, ripped away flimsy roofs and caused minor flooding on Sunday evening, according to residents and news reports. In Jamaica, there were reports of landslides and flooded roads.

“I slept well last night, except when the wind howled,” Nuris Lopez, a hairdresser, said by telephone from a town in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains in Cuba’s eastern Granma province.

Laura was heading toward the Gulf of Mexico at 20 miles per hour (31 kilometers per hour), according to the NHC. By Tuesday, it was expected to have reached hurricane strength. By Wednesday night, stronger still, it was expected to hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, the NHC said.

By then, it could be a Category 2 or 3 hurricane on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity, said Chris Kerr, a meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider.

OIL HIT HARD

Despite Marco’s weakening, with the NHC predicting it would slow to a tropical depression by Monday night, that storm still threatened to soak the Louisiana coast.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent teams to operations centers in Louisiana and Texas.

This year’s hurricane season has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing many people to weigh the risks of leaving their homes and potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

Officials in Louisiana said that testing for COVID-19 was suspended in the state on Monday and Tuesday.

Energy companies moved to cut production at U.S. Gulf Coast oil refineries after shutting half the area’s offshore crude oil output as back-to-back storms took aim at the coast.

Producers have shut more than 1 million barrels per day of Gulf Coast offshore oil production, 9% of the nation’s total output, facing a storm that is forecast to become a damaging Category 2 hurricane.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York, Marc Frank in Havana, Kate Chappell in Kingston and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

From New York to Houston, flood risk for real estate hubs ramps up

By Kate Duguid and Ally Levine

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The number of properties in the United States in danger of flooding this year is 70% higher than government data estimates, research released on Monday shows, with at-risk hot spots in Houston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The higher risk identified could have implications for property values as well as insurance rates, municipal bonds and mortgage-backed securities, according to investors and researchers at First Street Foundation, which released the data. (http://www.floodfactor.com)

“This could change the calculus on whether a given property is resalable, or what price you sell it at,” said Tom Graff, head of fixed income at Brown Advisory.

The data, which covers the contiguous United States, found that around 14.6 million properties, or 10.3%, are at a substantial risk of flooding this year versus the 8.7 million mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA maps are currently used to determine rates on government flood insurance and underpin risk assessments done by mortgage lenders, investors and home buyers. The maps, however, only account for coastal flooding – not rain or rivers – and do not incorporate the ways climate change has made storms worse.

A FEMA spokesperson said that First Street’s maps build on those created by the agency and the two are not incompatible.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, New York and Cape Coral, Florida top First Street’s list of cities with the most number of properties at risk. At the state level, Florida, Texas, California, New York and Pennsylvania have the most to lose. Florida and Texas also top FEMA’s list, but with significantly fewer properties estimated to be at risk.

Washington, D.C., has the greatest deviation from FEMA’s numbers, 438.4% more properties at risk, because First Street accounts for potential flooding from the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and a drainage basin under the city. Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have the next highest deviations, all between three to four times greater than FEMA estimates.

Commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS), investments that pool loans for office buildings, hotels, shopping centers and more, are among the securities most exposed to flood risk because of the concentration of cities on the U.S. coasts.

“There is a moral hazard within the investment community of not pricing in the risk of something like this happening,” said Scott Burg, chief investment officer at hedge fund Deer Park Road.

Nearly 20% of all U.S. commercial real estate value is located in Houston, Miami and New York, according to CoStar data, each of which has been hit by hurricanes in the last decade.

Hurricane Harvey, which slammed Houston in 2017 and caused $131 billion damage, affected over 1,300 CMBS loans, 3% of the CMBS market in 2017, according to BlackRock research. Hurricane Irma in 2017 affected 2%.

The BlackRock report concluded that 80% of the commercial property damaged by those two storms was outside of FEMA flood zones, indicating that many of the buildings hit may not have been appropriately insured.

Any floods this year could compound the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sent more than $32 billion of commercial loans into special servicing – negotiations for relief in the event of a default – according to Moody’s.

“For property owners that’s like getting your arm amputated and then your head lopped off,” said Jacob Hagi a professor of finance at the University of North Carolina and a First Street research partner.

(Reporting by Kate Duguid; editing by Megan Davies and Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. to seize exports of masks and gloves amid coronavirus crisis

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will seize exports of key protective medical gear until it determines whether the equipment should be kept in the country to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, two federal agencies announced on Wednesday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will hold exports of respirators, surgical masks and surgical gloves, according to a joint announcement made with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA will then determine if the equipment should be returned for use in the United States, purchased by the U.S. government or exported.

President Donald Trump issued a memorandum on Friday that directed federal agencies to use any authority necessary to keep the highly sought-after medical supplies in the United States.

Governors, mayors and physicians have voiced alarm for weeks over crippling scarcities of personal protective gear for first-responders and front-line healthcare workers, as well as ventilators and other medical supplies.

The move to seize exports will include N95 respirator masks, which filter airborne particles and are used to protect against COVID-19, the potentially lethal respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The U.S. manufacturing company 3M Co, a leading producer of the masks worldwide, said on Monday that it had reached a deal with the Trump administration that would allow it to continue to export the masks to Canada and Latin America despite the new restrictions. The company had said days earlier that ceasing exports to those regions would have “humanitarian implications.”

A federal regulation that outlines FEMA’s procedures for seizing and vetting the exports will go into effect on Friday and remain in place until Aug. 10, according to a draft version posted online.

FEMA will aim to make decisions about exports quickly and seek to minimize disruptions to the supply chain, the draft regulation said.

Some state and local government officials have accused FEMA in recent days of confiscating shipments of masks and other supplies coming from overseas.

An official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who requested anonymity to discuss the matter earlier this week said half of the protective gear brought to the United States on U.S. government flights can be redirected to high-need areas around the country, but disputed the idea that the equipment had been seized.

FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump declares coronavirus a national emergency

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday declared a national emergency over the fast-spreading coronavirus, opening the door to providing what he said was about $50 billion in federal aid to fight the disease.

Trump made the announcement at a Rose Garden news conference.

Trump said he was declaring the national emergency in order to “unleash the full power of the federal government.” He urged every state to set up emergency centers to help fight the virus.

Pressure has been mounting for Trump to declare an infectious disease emergency under the 1988 law that would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide disaster funds to state and local governments and to deploy support teams. The power is rarely used. Former President Bill Clinton in 2000 declared such an emergency for West Nile virus.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; additional reporting by Lisa Lambert and Susan Heavey, Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Berkrot)

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)