Biden visits tornado-stricken Kentucky bringing federal aid, empathy

By Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden flew to Kentucky on Wednesday to survey the areas hardest hit by one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in recent U.S. history, a system that killed at least 74 people in the state and at least 14 elsewhere.

Biden, no stranger to tragic personal losses, will reprise his familiar role as consoler in chief, while promising to bring the might of the federal government to rebuild devastated communities that suffered billions of dollars in damage.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear offered a grim update on Tuesday, saying the dead included a dozen children, the youngest of whom was a 2-month-old infant. He added that he expected the death toll to rise in the coming days, with more than 100 still missing.

Biden will visit the Army installation at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a briefing on the storm before continuing on to Mayfield and Dawson Springs, two towns separated by roughly 70 miles (112 km) that were largely flattened by the twisters.

The president will be “surveying storm damage firsthand, (and) making sure that we’re doing everything to deliver assistance as quickly as possible in impacted areas to support recovery efforts,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Tuesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent search-and-rescue and emergency response teams to Kentucky, along with teams to help survivors register for assistance, Psaki said.

FEMA has also sent dozens of generators into the state, along with 135,000 gallons (511,000 litres) of water, 74,000 meals and thousands of cots, blankets, infant toddler kits and pandemic shelter kits.

Biden has approved federal disaster declarations for Kentucky and the neighboring states of Tennessee and Illinois, offering residents and local officials increased federal aid.

Credit ratings agency DBRS Morningstar said the tornadoes were likely the most severe in the United States since 2011. Insurers are sufficiently prepared to cover claims without significant capital impact, it said in a report.

The trip marks one of the few that Biden, a Democrat, has taken to areas that tilt heavily toward the Republican Party, many of whose voters and leaders have embraced Donald Trump’s fraudulent claims that he won the 2020 election. The White House has been careful not to bring politics into the disaster relief efforts, including not focusing on what role, if any, climate change may have played in the tragic events.

“He looks at them as human beings, not as people who have partisan affiliations,” Psaki said. “And in his heart, he has empathy for everything that they’re going through.”

“The message he will send to them directly and clearly tomorrow is: ‘We’re here to help, we want to rebuild, we are going to stand by your side and we’re going to help your leaders do exactly that,'” she added.

Biden lost his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, and his older son, Beau, died in 2015 after a fight with brain cancer.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, additional reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Heather Timmons, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

A month after Ida’s landfall, Louisianans decry ‘Third World’ conditions

By Brad Brooks

CROZIER, La. (Reuters) -Bruce Westley stood outside his wrecked mobile home, pointing to a small lime green tent, two patio chairs and a 30-quart aluminum pot atop a single propane burner.

“For more than a month, that’s been our bedroom, our living room and our kitchen,” said the 65-year-old disabled Navy veteran. He and his wife Christina are among thousands of southeast Louisianans struggling more than a month after Hurricane Ida swept through the heart of Cajun country.

Reuters traveled the bayous of hard-hit Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes in recent days, speaking with more than 40 residents. All said they felt abandoned by state and federal officials. A few said they had not received any type of support from any level of government.

“We can’t keep living like this,” Westley said. “We just need any damn thing to get off the ground, man.”

In most areas it looked as if Ida rolled through only a day or two ago. Old timers who say they’ve seen it all swear they have never witnessed a more destructive storm.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman said the agency was working as quickly as possible. Louisiana’s Governor John Bel Edwards on Monday announced a temporary sheltering program supported by FEMA that he said would start bringing trailers into the hardest-hit areas to alleviate housing shortages.

The human misery and the piles of debris testify to the massive strain on public and private resources in a hurricane-prone area. The scenes also raise questions about how the United States will cope as climate change creates a new, more destructive normal.

Reuters saw no heavy equipment, trucks or workers helping people clear the rubble and recover their belongings. The only government presence was in the form of law enforcement officers and staff at FEMA mobile centers processing disaster claims. Residents said it has basically been that way since Ida made landfall on Aug. 29 and killed 26 people, though roadways in the area were largely cleared of debris.

Hundreds of people, many of them elderly and children, were in tents. Others were in homes that clearly have severe structural damage and where mold, which can impact respiratory health and cause severe allergic reactions, was spreading.

Grocery stores, most restaurants and other businesses remain closed. Power is still out for thousands of people and many have no water or sewage services.

Despite the difficulties, communities are trying to band together. Outside the Howard Third Zion Travelers Baptist Church just two blocks down from where Westley and his wife are camping, volunteers say they have been handing out meals to 1,000 families daily. Ida destroyed the church’s south-facing wall.

“You want to know what’s been going on to help these people? Pretty much nothing,” said Talisa Clark, a community activist for the historically Black area who has been helping coordinate the food distribution. “There are no state or federal boots on the ground to help. It’s looking like a Third World country’s efforts down here.”

Clark was forced out of her badly damaged home near Houma and has been staying with relatives.

Parish officials for Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson and Plaquemines did not respond to a request for comment.

DIFFICULT CHOICES

John Mills, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman at a support site in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, said he understood the frustrations of those who survived Ida.

“Families and communities will have to face difficult choices about how to rebuild – and whether to rebuild here at all,” he said.

FEMA is distributing money so people can rent housing for at least two months. In addition, as of Monday FEMA said it was paying hotel costs for nearly 8,000 families. In total, it estimates it has spent at least $30 million in hotel costs.

“That plan probably works under most circumstances. But the breadth of Ida’s damage is so huge, that there’s no housing stock, there’s no hotel rooms available,” said Tanner Magee, a state representative whose district includes Terrebonne parish.

State and parish governments have contracted out the task of picking up debris, but have struggled with even deciding on where they will put it, Magee said. He said far more workers and trucks were needed in hard-hit areas.

Magee and his family, who live in Houma, are staying in his Ida-damaged home.

“If you see this destruction around you constantly and it’s not going anywhere, it beats down on people,” Magee said. “I’m really worried about the mental health of people.”

Magee and others say they need temporary FEMA trailers. FEMA says that takes several weeks, and is complicated by federal and state regulations that make it difficult to bring in temporary shelters during hurricane season.

FEMA, along with the Small Business Administration, has paid out over $1.1 billion for Ida damage so far, mostly through grants to homeowners, along with FEMA’s national flood insurance program. Uninsured damage estimates are upward of $19 billion, according to the property data and analytics company CoreLogic, with 90% of those losses along Louisiana’s coast, and the rest in Alabama and Mississippi. There could be another $21 billion in damage to insured properties.

STAY RIGHT HERE

In Galliano, Maria Molina hand washed shirts and shorts for her 7-year-old daughter Julia and grown son Leonardo; she then hung them out to dry.

“I’m out of work, I’m out of money and we’re out of food. We don’t have anywhere to go, even though this trailer seems unsafe,” she said of her blue mobile home, which was now akilter with a damaged roof and foundation.

Molina was awaiting word on whether she’ll qualify for any FEMA aid.

Down the road in the town of Golden Meadow, Rosie Verdin, 73, stood on the tilted porch of her home behind the tribal headquarters of her United Houma Nation.

Verdin said Ida’s destruction was the worst she’d seen. Some three-fourths of her tribe’s 19,000 members saw their homes destroyed or left uninhabitable.

“But there is nothing that will drive us off this land,” she said. “With or without help, we’ll rebuild and stay right here.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Donna Bryson and Aurora Ellis)

Ida loses punch, levees hold, but Louisiana expects more rain and flooding

By Devika Krishna Kumar

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -Ida lost some of its punch over southwestern Mississippi on Monday after making landfall in Louisiana as one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the region, but it could still trigger heavy flooding, the National Hurricane Center said.

Ida, the first major hurricane to strike the United States this year, made landfall around noon on Sunday as a Category 4 storm over Port Fourchon, a hub of the Gulf’s offshore oil industry, packing sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour).

Although weakened to a tropical storm, heavy downpours could bring life-threatening flooding, the NHC said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Deanne Criswell said the full impact of the storm would become clear later in the day.

“We’re hearing about widespread structural damage,” Criswell said in an interview with CNN. “I don’t think there could have been a worse path for this storm. It’s going to have some significant impacts.”

Federal levees installed to reduce the risk of flooding appeared to have held, according to preliminary reports.

“Daylight will bring horrific images as the damage is assessed. More than 20,000 linemen will work to restore the deeply damaged power lines,” Shauna Sanford, communications director for Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards wrote in a tweet.

“The good news: no federal levee failed or was overtopped.”

Kevin Lepine, president of Plaquemines Parish, home to 23,000 residents and one of Louisiana’s southern most communities, said he had had little sleep overnight as he braced for first light and the chance to go and assess the damage.

“We’re worried about the levees down the road,” he said.

On Sunday night, the sheriff’s office in Ascension Parish reported the first known U.S. fatality from the storm, a 60-year-old man killed by a tree falling on his home near Baton Rouge, the state capital.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state, ordering federal assistance to bolster recovery efforts in more than two dozen storm-stricken parishes.

Ida crashed ashore as Louisiana was already reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections that has strained the state’s healthcare system, with an estimated 2,450 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, many in intensive care units.

Its arrival came 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, one of the most catastrophic and deadly U.S. storms on record, struck the Gulf Coast, and about a year after the last Category 4 hurricane, Laura, battered Louisiana.

A loss of generator power at the Thibodaux Regional Health System hospital in Lafourche Parish, southwest of New Orleans, forced medical workers to manually assist respirator patients with breathing while they were moved to another floor, the state Health Department confirmed to Reuters.

Within 12 hours of landfall, Ida had plowed a destructive path that submerged much of the state’s coastline under several feet of surf, with flash flooding reported by the National Hurricane Center across southeastern Louisiana.

Nearly all offshore Gulf oil production was suspended in advance of the storm, and major ports along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts were closed to shipping.

WIDESPREAD OUTAGES

Power was knocked out Sunday night to the entire New Orleans metropolitan area following the failure of all eight transmission lines that deliver electricity to the city, the utility company Entergy Louisiana reported.

One transmission tower collapsed into the Mississippi River, the Jefferson Parish Emergency Management Department said.

More than 1 million Louisiana homes and businesses in all were without electricity early on Monday, as well as some 120,000 in Mississippi, according to the tracking site Poweroutage.US.

Residents of the most vulnerable coastal areas were ordered to evacuate days ahead of the storm. Those riding out the storm in their homes in New Orleans braced for the toughest test yet of major upgrades to a levee system constructed following devastating floods in 2005 from Katrina, a hurricane that claimed some 1,800 lives.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the newly reinforced New Orleans levees were expected to hold, though they said they said the flood walls could be overtopped in some places.

Hundreds of miles of new levees were built around New Orleans after flooding from Katrina inundated much of the low-lying city, especially historically Black neighborhoods.

Inundation from Ida’s storm surge – high surf driven by the hurricane’s winds – was reported to be exceeding predicted levels of 6 feet (1.8 m) along parts of the coast. Videos posted on social media showed storm surge flooding had transformed sections of Highway 90 along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast into a choppy river.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in New Orleans; Additional reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Jonathan Allen in New York, Erwin Seba in Houston, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Laura Sanicola, Linda So and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Liz Hampton in Denver, and Arpan Varghese, Kanishka Singh, Bhargav Acharya and Nakul Iyer in Bengaluru; Writing by Steve Gorman and Maria Caspani; Editing by Richard Pullin and Nick Macfie)

Biden in Florida to comfort families as search at collapse site paused over safety concerns

By Katanga Johnson and Steve Holland

SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) – President Joe Biden visited Florida on Thursday to comfort the families of those killed and missing in last week’s condominium collapse, as the search-and-rescue operation was temporarily suspended due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure.

Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has marked his political career, was set to reprise the role of “consoler-in-chief” a week after the 12-story building partially caved in as residents slept.

The confirmed death toll remained at 18, after the discovery of six more bodies in the ruins of the Champlain Towers South condo, including two children, aged 4 and 10. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble, with hopes of finding any survivors dimming with each passing day.

After arriving in Miami, Biden attended a briefing with local officials, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.

Biden told them he would deliver “whatever you need” and said he expected the federal government would cover the full costs for the county and state.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This is life or death.”

Workers at the site were instructed to stop just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, when movement in the debris raised concerns that the part of the building still standing could collapse, officials said.

“The search-and-rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news briefing. Officials said they were unsure when that would happen.

Authorities said they have not given up on locating survivors. But nobody has been pulled alive from the wreckage since the early hours of the disaster in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers did hear signs of life during their initial efforts last week.

“They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard for several hours,” he said. “Eventually, we didn’t hear her voice anymore.”

Officials are also keeping a watchful eye on Tropical Storm Elsa, which formed over the Atlantic and could reach south Florida by Monday, potentially hampering search operations.

SEARCH-AND-RESCUE

Among those traveling with Biden on Thursday were U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the collapse site; Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell; and Liz Sherwood-Randall, White House homeland security adviser.

Biden had delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts.

FEMA has dispatched five urban search-and-rescue teams – each comprised of 80 members – to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.

DeSantis said workers have removed some 1,400 tons of material from the collapse site.

Thursday’s trip is Biden’s second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president in January.

In February, he traveled to Texas after a winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.

After his briefing, the president planned to thank first responders and rescue crews before meeting with victims’ families. He is scheduled to deliver remarks shortly before 4 p.m. in Miami.

Biden’s ability to connect his own hardships with the grief and anguish of others has become a defining feature of his public life, having endured the deaths of his first wife, a daughter and a son.

Investigators have not determined what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old condo complex to crumble in one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.

But a 2018 report prepared by engineering firm Morabito Consultants ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies in the 136-unit complex that are now the focus of inquiries.

The Washington Post reported late on Wednesday that the majority of the board of the Surfside condominium, including its president, resigned in 2019, partly in frustration over what was seen as the sluggish response to the report.

(Reporting By Katanga Johnson in Surfside and Steve Holland in Bal Harbor; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Francisco Alvarado, Brendan O’Brien, Peter Szekely, Kanishka Singh and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Giles Elgood, Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall)

Praying for ‘miracle,’ families await news of missing in Florida condo collapse

By Francisco Alvarado

SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) -Families and friends of the 159 people missing after the collapse of a condo building in a Miami suburb were clinging to hope on Friday as rescue workers sifted through a mountain of debris for signs of life, having found four dead so far.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters on Friday crews had pulled three more bodies from the wreckage overnight, after one person was reported to have died on Thursday. Officials increased the number of presumed missing from 99 reported missing on Thursday.

“I’m praying for a miracle,” Rachel Spiegel, whose mother Judy Spiegel is missing, told CNN on Friday.

The last time Spiegel communicated with her mom was Wednesday night, when her mother excitedly texted her that she had bought a dress online for Spiegel’s daughter, her granddaughter.

Hours later, early Thursday morning, a large section of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, a barrier island town across Biscayne Bay from the city of Miami, crumbled to the ground, authorities said.

Video captured by a security camera nearby showed an entire side of the building suddenly folding in two sections, one after the other, at about 1:30 a.m. (0530 GMT) on Thursday, throwing up clouds of dust.

Dozens of people were gathered at a reunification site at the Surfside Community Center on Friday, where the scene was hectic with volunteers running around and people hugging to console each other.

Outside the center, Toby Fried held back tears when she said she last spoke to her brother Chiam “Harry” Rosenberg around midnight Wednesday. Rosenberg had lived in Champlain Towers for about a year and a half. He and his daughter Malki Weiss and Beni Weiss, who were visiting him from Brooklyn, are all missing.

“They came to stay with him for a week on vacation,” Fried said.

Joining the families searching for missing loved ones was Paraguay’s first lady Silvana López Moreira, who traveled to Florida because her sister, brother-in-law and their children were unaccounted for. The first lady’s family owned a condo in the building, local media reported.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah said on Friday that rescuers had heard sounds in the rubble overnight, but said it could be either falling debris or people tapping.

“We are listening for sounds, human sounds and tapping,” Jadallah said, as rescuers use shovels and jackhammers to tunnel under the debris to find pockets where survivors could be.

Mariela Porras, a friend of a woman who lived in the building with her young daughter and is now missing, said she has not abandoned hope that the two were still alive beneath the rubble.

“I vacillate between hope and I’m heartbroken,” Porras told CNN.

‘WE STILL HAVE HOPE’ Mayor Cava on Friday said that rescue teams were “incredibly motivated” to find anyone who might have survived the collapse.

“We still have hope that we will find people alive,” the mayor said.

She said on Thursday that 110 individuals whose whereabouts were initially unknown have since been located and “declared safe.”

A fire official said earlier that 35 people were evacuated from the section of the high-rise left standing, and response teams using trained dogs and drones in the search pulled two individuals from the rubble. One of them was dead.

U.S. President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in the state of Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts.

“The president’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts,” the White House said on Friday.

What caused the 40-year-old high-rise to cave in was not immediately known, although local officials said the 12-story tower was undergoing roof construction and other repairs.

Space-based radar data showed that the land underneath the building was sinking during the 1990s, according to a 2020 study. That by itself would not cause a building’s collapse but it is worth investigating further, according to Florida International University professor Shimon Wdowinksi, one of the study’s authors.

The sinking, or subsidence, underneath the building amounted to 1 to 3 millimeters per year, which could add up to several inches over a decade, according to the study.

Late Thursday night, a resident of the collapsed building filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit against the condominium, the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association.

Manuel Drezner said in the proposed class action that the collapse could have been avoided had the condominium made needed repairs and ensured it was safe.

He said the condominium should pay unit owners millions of dollars for their “unfathomable loss.”

Officials said the complex, built in 1981, was going through a recertification process requiring repairs, with another building under construction on an adjacent site.

The Champlain Towers South had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied. It had been subject to various inspections recently due to the recertification process and the adjacent building construction, Surfside Commissioner Charles Kesl told Miami television station WPLG Local 10.

(Reporting by Francisco Alvarado in Surfside, Florida; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Gabriella Borter in Washington and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Jonathan Oatis)

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)