Restoring felon voting rights a ‘mess’ in battleground Florida

By Linda So

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) – Clifford Tyson wants to help choose America’s next president. But the Florida resident fears his vote might return him to jail.

Tyson, 63, owes court-ordered fines and fees for three felony convictions, one for robbery, two for theft, all decades old. Under a Florida law that went into effect July 1, he must pay those penalties before casting a ballot or risk being prosecuted for voter fraud.

Tyson searched court records, first on his own, then with the help of a nonprofit legal advocacy group. They say that because Florida has no comprehensive system for tracking such fines, the documents don’t make clear what he owes. The records, viewed by Reuters, show potential sums ranging from $846 to a couple thousand dollars related to crimes he committed in the late 1970s and 1990s. Tyson says he won’t risk voting until Florida authorities can tell him for sure.

“Until there is clarity, as much as I want to vote, I won’t do it,” Tyson said.

The Tampa pastor is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the payments law, which was crafted by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, also a Republican. The law came just months after Floridians approved a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to more than 1 million felons who have completed their sentences; that change to the state’s Constitution created a potentially huge new crop of voters in a critical battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The lawsuit, filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, alleges the fees requirement defies the will of Florida voters and amounts to an illegal poll tax on newly enfranchised Florida felons, many of them minorities.

But another argument is shaping up to be central to the plaintiffs’ case: Florida has no consolidated system for determining what felons owe or certifying that they have paid up. It’s a situation that ex-offenders say makes it virtually impossible for them to prove they are eligible to vote.

Those claims are bolstered by state election officials who say they can’t calculate what felons owe, either, according to a Reuters review of 7 depositions, emails and other internal correspondence from voting administrators submitted by plaintiffs’ attorneys as part of the lawsuit.

Florida has no centralized database where records of court-ordered fines and fees – and any payments of those penalties – are stored, election and court officials say. To get that information, felons typically must search documents in courts where they were convicted, be they federal or state, inside or outside Florida. Records have been found to be incomplete, contradictory or missing, plaintiffs’ attorneys say.

With the Feb. 18 deadline to register for the state’s 2020 presidential primary approaching, the issue is taking on urgency. An estimated 436,000 felons have fees to settle before they can vote, according to a study by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, an expert witness for the ACLU. The study was based on court data and Department of Corrections records.

The stakes are high. Florida commands 29 of the 538 electoral votes that are used under the U.S. Electoral College system to select the American president. In Florida and most other states, the candidate who places first in the popular vote – even if just by a hair – wins all the electoral votes. Florida has a history of tight elections and contested outcomes.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say Florida has shifted all responsibility for compliance with the new payments law to ex-offenders, who risk prosecution if they get it wrong. The state contends the legislature merely implemented the constitutional amendment as it was written on the ballot.

The legislation, known as SB 7066, “sows seeds of confusion,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It will chill participation.”

Some of the state’s 67 county elections supervisors – the public servants who ultimately decide which felons get culled from the rolls and which can stay – expressed concern in their depositions and to Reuters about making mistakes that could invite challenges to future election results.

Five testified recently in the lawsuit that they lack the manpower to do detailed searches or have no way of ascertaining for certain whether ex-offenders have met their financial obligations under SB 7066.

They said they are relying on Florida’s Department of State, which manages the state’s elections, to help them determine who is ineligible. That agency is developing a procedure to send counties regularly updated lists of felons on their rolls who have unpaid fines and fees, but it has no timetable as to when it will be ready, said Maria Matthews, the director of the Department of State’s Division of Elections, in a September deposition. Matthews did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

For now, the agency is providing counties only with names of Florida felons who are incarcerated, and thus ineligible to vote, Toshia Brown, chief of the department’s Voter Registration Services, said in an August deposition. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

An early list sent to Leon County in Florida’s Panhandle region appeared to contain inaccuracies, Deputy Elections Supervisor Christopher Moore said in a July email to his staff, which was viewed by Reuters. Moore’s office researched a June list provided by the Department of State containing 66 names of allegedly incarcerated felons, but could not determine whether felony convictions existed for 24 of them – 36% of the total – emails exchanged between Moore and his staff show.

“This process is not off to a very accurate start and we are playing with people’s eligibility to vote,” Moore said in the July email. Moore told Reuters that subsequent data his office has received from the Department of State has gotten better.

Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the Department of State reviews information from a variety of sources, makes an initial determination on a voter’s eligibility, then passes that along to county supervisors. She said the agency is working to “improve the accuracy and efficiency of the information,” but said it’s up to those elections supervisors to make the final call.

Some backers of the payments law say the responsibility should be on ex-offenders, not the state, to figure out how to comply with SB 7066.

“If you’re going to register to vote and you’re a former felon, it’s worth double checking to make sure you took care of everything,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party in central Florida.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Florida has set a Monday hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to throw out the fees requirement. A decision could come as early as this month.

NO CENTRALIZED DATABASE

Florida stripped felons of their votes during the Jim Crow era in 1868, a ban that endured 150 years and disproportionately affected black voters. As recently as 2016, more than 1.4 million people with felony convictions were barred from voting in Florida, including one in five African American adults, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit, which used state conviction and incarceration records for the study.

In November 2018, nearly 65% of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons, except those convicted of murder and sex crimes.

Through the end of July, Florida recorded around 337,000 new voter registrations, 45,000 of them by African Americans. That’s a 22% increase in new black voters compared to the same period in 2015, the year preceding the last presidential election, a Reuters analysis of Florida voting data shows.

The ballot initiative said felons must first complete “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Republican lawmakers interpreted that to include any court costs, fines, fees and restitution to victims imposed at sentencing. In May, they passed a bill requiring repayment as a condition for voting.

DeSantis, the governor, signed it into law in June amid criticism by voting rights advocates that the legislation was intended to suppress potential votes of African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic. DeSantis has dismissed claims that the law is a poll tax.

The state is still discussing ways to centralize data to track payments. Building a consolidated system could take years and cost millions, according to lawmakers and officials who debated the issue before the law’s passage.

“Right now, the system is just a mess,” ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein said.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center said the group spent weeks trying to track down what Tyson owes, but couldn’t get a clear answer.

For example, Tyson has a 1998 theft conviction in Hillsborough County on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A judgment order on the clerk’s online docket shows he was ordered to pay $661 in costs, fines and fees. But a separate subpage on the website indicates he was ordered to pay $1,066. Still another shows a total of $573. Tyson’s lawyers say no officials have been able to explain the discrepancies.

State Representative Jamie Grant of Tampa, a Republican supporter of SB 7066, said critics of the law are the ones trying to defy the will of the electorate.

“You don’t get to change what the definition and terms are after people vote for it,” Grant said.

(Reporting by Linda So; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Bahamas in crisis after Hurricane Dorian flattens homes, food scarce

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas,September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

By Dante Carrer

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – Survivors of Hurricane Dorian on Wednesday picked through the wreckage of homes ripped open by fierce winds, struggled to fuel generators and queued for food after one of the most powerful Caribbean storms on record devastated parts of the Bahamas.

The most damaging storm to strike the island nation, Dorian killed at least seven people, but the scope of the destruction and a humanitarian crisis was still coming into focus as aerial video of the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas showed wide devastation.

Dozens of people took to Facebook to search for missing loved ones, and aid agencies estimated that tens of thousands of people out of the Bahamas population of 400,000 would need food and other support.

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas,September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas,September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. “We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information.”

LaQuez Williams, pastor at Jubilee Cathedral in Grand Bahama, opened the church as a shelter for about 150 people. As the storm ground on, Williams said that from the higher ground of the church he could see people on their rooftops seeking refuge.

“They were calling for help, but you could not go out to reach,” Williams said. “It was very difficult because you felt helpless.”

Aerial video of Great Abaco Island showed miles of flooded neighborhoods littered with upturned boats and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off.

“Victims are being loaded on flatbed trucks across Abaco,” one Twitter user with the handle @mvp242 said, describing a rain-blurred photograph of limp bodies strewn across a truck bed.

Other posts on Twitter said entire communities were swept away. Photographs from the airport at Freeport showed a light plane torn in two, with hangars badly damaged and scattered debris.

After rampaging through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, Dorian’s wind speeds dropped on Tuesday to make it a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. It maintained that level on Wednesday, but forecasters warned it was still dangerous.

Some minor flooding occurs on the bridges from the beach towards communities from Hurricane Dorian in Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

Some minor flooding occurs on the bridges from the beach towards communities from Hurricane Dorian in Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

DANGER FOR U.S. COAST

Residents of coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were preparing for Dorian’s approach on Wednesday, with the National Hurricane Center warning it could make landfall in South or North Carolina on Thursday or Friday.

South Carolina officials said they were expecting storm surges of four to eight feet and wind gusts of 90 mph (140 kph) on Thursday, and told people to evacuate the coast as Dorian drew closer.

“It’s getting here a little weaker than it could have but now it’s gotten here,” Governor Henry McMaster said at a news conference. “Time to get out is running out.”

Florida avoided a direct hit from Dorian.

“We certainly got lucky in Florida, and now if we could get lucky in Georgia, in North Carolina, in South Carolina,” President Donald Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.

People crept back into Jacksonville Beach as Florida appeared to be escaping the worst of the storm, with a couple of people seen surfing by its pier on Wednesday morning.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp extended a state of emergency to cover 21 counties as the storm tracked north towards its coast. The emergency covers more than 900,000 Georgia residents, of whom over 400,000 have been ordered to evacuate, according to the state Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.

Dorian had sustained winds near 105 miles per hour (165 kph) as it churned about 90 miles (140 km) northeast of Daytona Beach, Florida around midday on Wednesday, the NHC said.

Hurricane-force winds had expanded to 60 miles (100 km) from the storm’s core.

Heavy rains and storm-surge waters moving inland could cause life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The risk extended from Jupiter, Florida, to Surf City, North Carolina. Tornadoes were possible along the Florida coast, with the risk later moving to Georgia and South Carolina.

BAHAMAS BATTERED

With many telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones on social media sites.

A single Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas seeking the names of missing people had 2,000 comments listing lost family members since it went live on Tuesday, although some of the comments were also about loved ones being found.

Janith Mullings, 66, from Freeport, Grand Bahama, said she had been through hurricanes all her life but had never seen anything like Dorian.

“We’ve never had hurricanes in none of our islands that have experienced the ocean rising like it did. The ocean was something no one could prepare for,” she said.

As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

“It’s heartbreaking …,” said Caroline Turnquest, director general of Bahamas Red Cross. “We know from what we’ve been seeing and hearing, that this one will require the help of all the persons.”

Food may be required for 14,500 people in the Abaco Islands and for 45,700 people in Grand Bahama, the U.N. World Food Programme said.

The State Department said it did not believe any U.S. citizens who were in the Bahamas, a popular tourist destination, during the storm were killed.

U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection personnel have airlifted 61 people from the northern Bahamas to the capital Nassau over two days, the U.S. Embassy said.

(Reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Florida, Gabriella Borter in Titusville, Florida, Peter Szekely, Jonathan Allen and Matthew Lavietes in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta, Writing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool)

Recovery on Bahamas begins as Hurricane Dorian heads for Florida, Carolinas

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

By Dante Carrer

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – Debris extended for miles and floods covered much of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, in what the archipelago’s prime minister called one of the worst disasters to ever strike the island nation.

Emergency workers struggled to reach victims as search and rescue operations continued into Wednesday and the scope of the damage and humanitarian crisis unfolded.

“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. “No effort or resources will be held back.”

News media reported early on Wednesday that some storm victims remained stuck on rooftops, waiting for rescue. The official death count of seven is expected rise in the coming days.

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

“We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information,” Minnis told a news conference.

“Marsh Harbor has suffered, I would estimate, in excess of 60 percent damage to their homes,” Minnis said, referring to the port on Great Abaco.

“The Mud, as we know, has been completely destroyed or decimated,” he said referring to a shantytown known as the Mud and the Peas.

Aerial video of the Bahamas’ Great Abaco Island showed miles of flooded neighborhoods, pulverized buildings, upturned boats and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off.

“Victims are being loaded on flatbed trucks across Abaco,” said one Twitter poster with the handle @mvp242, describing a rain-blurred photograph of limp bodies strewn across a truck bed. Other Twitter messages said whole communities were swept away.

Dorian’s winds had diminished to a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, the hurricane grew in size and picked up speed.

Forecasters said it would come dangerously close to Florida’s east coast on Wednesday, where more than a million people have been ordered evacuated.

Dorian packed sustained winds of 105 miles per hour (165 kph) and was moving north-northwest at 8 mph, as it churned about 90 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida, the NHC said in a 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) advisory.

“On this track, the core of Hurricane Dorian will move dangerously close to the Florida east coast and the Georgia coast through tonight,” a 5 a.m. NHC advisory said.

Hurricane-force winds had expanded to 60 miles from the storm’s core. “Dorian is expected to remain a powerful hurricane during the next couple of days,” the NHC said.

Heavy rains and storm surge waters moving inland could cause life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The risk extended from Jupiter, Fla., to Surf City, N.C. Tornadoes are possible along the Florida coast until tonight, with the risk later moving to Georgia and South Carolina.

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

LONG LISTS OF MISSING

With telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones across social media.

A single Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas seeking the names of missing people had 1,600 comments listing lost family members since it went live on Tuesday morning.

The exact toll in the Bahamas will not be clear until the storm passes and rescue crews can get to devastated areas, said Theo Neilly, the Bahamian consul general in Washington.

“We expect it to be very devastating and the damage to be extreme,” Neilly said. Dorian has battered the Bahamas for the past three days.

As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said, in the strongest storm ever to hit the Bahamas.

Food may be required for 14,500 people in the northern Bahamas’ Abaco Islands and for 45,700 people in Grand Bahama, the U.N. World Food Programme said in a statement. The preliminary estimates were based on an assessment by representatives of Caribbean nations, the WFP and other groups.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said on Twitter it was air-lifting critical relief items, such as plastic sheeting, hygiene kits, and water containers, from Miami to the Bahamas. The U.S. Coast Guard said four of its helicopters were assisting in humanitarian efforts.

Dorian, which killed one person in Puerto Rico before striking the Bahamas on Sunday, is tied for the second-strongest Atlantic storm to make landfall with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.

Tropical-storm-force winds and rain squalls were already lashing parts of the Florida coast early on Wednesday, and hurricane-force winds are possible today. The winds and heavy surf is likely to hit the Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina coasts by late on Thursday. More than a million people were ordered to evacuate coastal counties in those states.

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for South Carolina on Tuesday, freeing funds, other federal resources and manpower to assist during the storm and aftermath recovery. Emergencies have already been declared in Florida and Georgia.

(Reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas; Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Florida; Gabriella Borter in Titusville, Florida; Peter Szekely and Matthew Lavietes in New York;, Rich McKay in Atlanta; Idrees Ali in Washington: Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; and and Rebekah F. Ward in Mexico City; editing by Larry King)

Floridians evacuate and grumble as Hurricane Dorian slowly nears

Elderly citizens from an assisted living community board a bus after a mandatory evacuation order ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

By Gabriella Borter and Zachary Fagenson

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (Reuters) -At a retirement community in central Florida, elderly residents waited for a bus on Monday to evacuate to a shelter as one of the most monstrous Atlantic hurricanes on record crawled toward the state.

Mary McNiff, 92, sat in her wheelchair waiting to board at the Good Samaritan Society in Kissimmee, near Orlando, one of more than a million people under evacuation orders along the U.S. East Coast on the Labor Day holiday.

Elderly citizens from an assisted living community board a bus after a mandatory evacuation order ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

Elderly citizens from an assisted living community board a bus after a mandatory evacuation order ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

“Kind of anxious to get it over with,” she said before a rare trip off the property. “I haven’t been out for two years really with this leg,” she said, pointing to a cast on her left leg that she has been wearing since she had complications with a blood clot.

Hurricane Dorian was still miles out to sea, squatting over the Bahamas where it had already destroyed homes with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (249 kph). Forecasters warned it could still be dangerous as it drew closer to Florida even if its eye did not make landfall in the state.

The National Weather Service warned of hurricane-strength winds, several feet of storm surges and the risk of dangerous flash floods along much of the Florida coastline in the coming days.

Sue Watson, one of McNiff’s neighbors, was reluctant to move from the place she has called home for 14 years.

“I was all set to stay home until they had to turn the water off,” she said as she waited for the bus to pull out. She was not afraid, she said. “God knows what he’s doing and he’s in control.”

Another Florida resident, Randy Hightower, 71, evacuated from his mobile home in Daytona Beach to the Volusia County Fair Grounds shelter on Monday with his wife and dog. He called himself “an old Florida cracker” and said: “I’m more scared of this one than I’ve ever been of one in Florida before.”

MANDATORY EVACUATIONS

Nine counties in Florida have ordered mandatory evacuations, while seven counties have voluntarily evacuations. Farther north, officials in coastal South Carolina and Georgia ordered hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes for shelter.

On what would have usually been a bustling Labor Day holiday, historic downtown St. Augustine was instead filled with the sound of power saws, drills and hammers as bay-front businesses fortified themselves against impending winds and flooding.

It is the third storm Joy Warren and her husband, Andrew, have weathered since buying their 16-bedroom waterfront bed and breakfast more than a decade ago.

“I don’t know how many hurricanes it’s been through,” she said. “It’s still here. I love it. I’m going to get in as soon as I can. If it’s trashed, I’ll rebuild again.”

The Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine has been converted into a shelter with space for 500 people. Lee Franco headed inside clutching a pillow and a box of tissues. She had only moved to Florida six months ago but felt prepared.

“Because I was following the news, I knew what I needed, so we have sleeping bags, our papers and everything we need,” she said. “It’s so boring there, there’s nothing to do. You read and play with the telephone and that’s it.”

Steven Apuzzi, 49, was hoping he and his three children would get in. His family has been homeless and arrived at the shelter in a gray Dodge caravan in which they have been sleeping.

“I’m going through it,” he said, describing the problems a single father faces getting access to shelter. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get into this shelter. I’m hoping and praying.”

The shelter eventually let him in and he called it a blessing. Once the hurricane passed, he was not sure where the family would head next.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Kissimmee and Zachary Fagenson in St. Augustine; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Nick Zieminski and Peter Cooney)

Slow-moving hurricane Dorian pounds Bahamas, inches towards Florida coast

The eye of Hurricane Dorian remains near the city of Freeport, Bahamas in a satellite photograph distributed by the NOAA's National Weather Service September 2, 2019. National Weather Service/Handout via REUTERS.

By Dante Carrer

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – The slow-moving hurricane Dorian, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, pounded Grand Bahama Island on Tuesday and was forecast to come “dangerously close” to Florida’s coast by the day’s end.

Dorian has been pounding the Bahamas for days, killing at least five people in the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas and inundating homes with floodwater ahead of its expected advance on the U.S. coast, where more than a million people have been ordered evacuated.

But the hurricane weakened to a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale early on Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was moving northwest at 1 mile per hour (1.6 kph), well below walking speed.

The exact toll of the devastation in the Bahamas will not be clear until the storm passes and rescue crews can get on the ground.

“We are in the midst of a historic tragedy in parts of our northern Bahamas,” Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference on Monday. “Our mission and focus now is search, rescue and recovery.”

He added that the U.S. Coast Guard was on the ground in Abaco and had rescued a number of injured individuals. Critically injured people were being taken to hospitals on New Providence, the country’s most populous island.

As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

Houses in a neighborhood in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island were engulfed by 6 feet (1.8 m) of water. “It looks like they’re boats on top of the water,” said Rosa Knowles-Bain, 61, a resident who fled two days ago to an emergency shelter.

Dorian was expected to churn towards Florida by the day’s end, before bringing its powerful winds and dangerous surf along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina by late Thursday.

Forecasters have told Floridians not to become complacent, as the storm is now predicted to stay off the coast.

“It’s not that far off shore,” said Robbie Berg, a forecaster and hurricane specialist with the NHC.

“All it has to do is jog a little bit west and you have a full-on hurricane rolling through Florida,” he said. “No one is out of the woods.”

Houses line a flooded street after the effects of Hurricane Dorian arrived in Nassau, Bahamas, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/John Marc Nutt

Houses line a flooded street after the effects of Hurricane Dorian arrived in Nassau, Bahamas, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/John Marc Nutt

EVACUATIONS

Nine counties in Florida have issued mandatory evacuations. They included parts of Duval County, home to Jacksonville, one of Florida’s two biggest cities, and some areas in Palm Beach County, home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged coastal residents to heed evacuation orders.

Among those being evacuated was Sue Watson, a 93-year-old resident of a retirement community in Kissimmee in central Florida.

“I was all set to stay home until they had to turn the water off,” said Watson, who added she was not worried for her personal safety but hoped the storm spared the retirement community.

The storm was causing havoc for travelers on Florida’s east coast, where some airports and gasoline stations were closed.

Orlando International Airport, one of the largest in the state, planned to cease commercial operations at 2 a.m. on Tuesday because of the storm, it said in a statement.

Walt Disney World Resort <DIS.N> in Orlando will close early on Tuesday, it said in a statement.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster ordered mandatory evacuations for parts of eight coastal counties effective at noon on Monday. More than 830,000 people were under evacuation orders in Charleston and other coastal communities in the state, emergency management officials announced.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp ordered evacuations in six coastal counties, including all of Savannah’s 150,000 residents, also effective at noon on Monday, Kemp’s office said on Twitter.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in his state on Monday, his office said, anticipating the southeast coast could be hit by the storm on Thursday.

Dorian was tied with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane for the second-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, based on maximum sustained winds. Allen in 1980 was the most powerful, with 190-mile (306-kph) winds, the NHC said.

(Reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, Gabriella Borter in Titusville, Florida, Peter Szekely in New York, Rich Mckay in Atlanta, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Gareth Jones and Nick Zieminski)

Dorian to hit Bahamas as ‘devastating’ hurricane, then menace Georgia and Carolinas

Hurricane Dorian is seen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA's GOES-East Satellite, over the Atlantic Ocean, August 31, 2019 in this handout image obtained from social media. NOAA/Handout via REUTERS

By Zachary Fagenson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian punched northwest on Saturday to threaten Georgia and the Carolinas, possibly sparing Florida a direct hit, as the Bahamas braced for catastrophic waves and wind from the muscular category 4 storm.

Florida towns told residents to remain vigilant despite forecasts they might dodge a Dorian landfall, as a tropical storm watch was issued for the state’s south Atlantic coast.

Communities in northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina raised alert levels, with residents filling sandbags as authorities tested infrastructure and hurricane drills. South Carolina on Saturday joined Georgia, North Carolina and Florida in declaring a state of emergency.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis begged residents of Abaco and Grand Bahamas to head for the main island to escape the “devastating, dangerous” storm.

Hurricane Dorian is seen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA-42 WP-3D Orion aircraft during a reconnaissance mission over the Atlantic Ocean, August 30, 2019 in this handout image obtained from social media. Picture taken August 30, 2019. LCDR Robert Mitchell/NOAA/Handout via REUTERS

“I want you to remember: homes, houses, structures can be replaced. Lives cannot be replaced,” Minnis told a news conference, adding that 73,000 people and 21,000 homes were at risk to storm surges of up to 15 feet (4.6 meters).

At 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT)The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Dorian was packing maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (240 kph) and would hit the Bahamas on Sunday with more than two feet of rainfall in places, threatening deadly flash floods.

Dorian could then veer northwest and possibly remain at sea as it moved up the U.S. eastern seaboard late on Monday through Tuesday, the NHC said.

A tropical storm watch was issued for a more than 120-mile stretch (193 km) of Florida coast from Deerfield Beach to around Palm Bay, meaning sustained winds of up to 73 mph (117 kmh)were possible within 48 hours.

North Carolina authorities warned residents Dorian was heading their way, while counterparts in Florida told towns to remain alert.

“While obviously for us it’s a better forecast, we can’t assume that there’s not going to be hazardous weather,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

BAHAMAS ON SUNDAY

Central Florida towns urged residents to remain alert after past hurricanes like 1992’s Andrew slammed the Bahamas and then barreled straight into the peninsula’s southeast coast.

“Don’t start taking down your shutters, don’t start disassembling your emergency plan,” said Eric Flowers, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office in Indian River County.

On Tybee Island, a Georgia coastal barrier island, authorities put out sand for sandbags to protect against possible flooding in the marshy area.

“Our biggest concern is storm surge because the tides are really high right now,” said the manager of a local restaurant, who asked not be named as he was not authorized to speak to media.

Further north, Dorchester County in South Carolina raised its alert level to make sure infrastructure and public safety crews were ready for the hurricane in the area near the historic city of Charleston.

North Carolina Emergency Management (NCEMA) said the storm was forecast to keep moving in the state’s direction for the next 48 hours.

“Now is the time to prepare and assemble disaster supplies,” said Katie Webster, an NCEMA meteorologist, urging people to prepare a week’s supply of food and water.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in New York; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Franklin Paul)

As Dorian nears, one in five Florida nursing homes lacks a generator: state agency

FILE PHOTO: Two days after Hurricane Irma, William James, 83, sits without power, food or water, in his room at Cypress Run, an assisted living facility, in Immokalee, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo

By Scott Malone

(Reuters) – Only one in five Florida nursing homes plans to rely on deliveries of temporary generators to keep their air conditioners running if Hurricane Dorian knocks out power, a state agency said on Friday, short of the standard set by a law passed after a dozen people died in a sweltering nursing home after 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

State officials are also racing to check some 120 nursing homes and assisted living facilities where they are unsure if generators or contingency plans are in place, Governor Ron DeSantis told a news conference.

The state’s residents, meanwhile, scrambled to board up their windows and stock up on food ahead of the storm, which is forecast to grow into a potentially deadly major hurricane before it roars ashore early on Tuesday.

The generator question is a matter of urgency in Florida, an aging state where some 190,000 people live in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, signed the March 2018 law requiring all nursing homes to be able to keep their temperatures at or below 81 degrees Fahrenheit (27°C) for at least 72 hours after losing power.

The law followed pervasive problems in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Irma, which knocked out electricity to a wide swath of the state. Police in Hollywood, Florida, earlier this week charged four nursing home employees with causing the deaths of 12 patients in the sweltering heat of a post-hurricane power outage.

“There are going to be site checks, there are going to be phone calls to make sure that they have a plan to deal with folks that are in their care,” DeSantis said.

State data shows that just 41.8% of Florida’s 687 nursing homes have permanent generators in place, with 36.4% having temporary generators on site. Some 21.4%, or 147 nursing homes with beds for 17,754 people, have arrangements in place to have temporary generators delivered if they lose power, while three with the capacity to house a total 338 people, would evacuate if they lose power.

The picture is brighter among the state’s 3,061 assisted-living facilities, which can house 106,086 people. Fully 94.3% of those sites have permanent generators in place, according to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

State legislative records, however, show that hundreds of nursing homes have received waivers allowing them to operate with temporary generators, even though the 2018 law intended for all sites to have permanent generators in place by the start of last year’s hurricane season.

The agency, which oversees nursing home and assisted-living facilities in the state, said it was working to ensure that all those sites complied with the law.

“Our Agency remains committed to making sure long term care facilities can support safe conditions during loss of power,” AHCA Secretary Mary Mayhew said in a statement on Friday. “Agency staff are also conducting outreach activities for facilities without current generator information.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Hurricane Dorian gains strength as Florida braces for hit, Trump says Florida faces ‘absolute monster’

Shoppers wait in a long line for a Sam's Club store to open before sunrise, as people rushed to buy supplies ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. August 30, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

By Zach Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian gained strength as it crept closer to Florida’s coast on Friday, raising the risk that parts of the U.S. state will be hit by strong winds, a storm surge and heavy rain for a prolonged period after it makes landfall early next week.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) issued a hurricane watch for northwestern Bahamas, and said Dorian was likely to remain an extremely dangerous hurricane as it approaches Florida through the weekend.

“The biggest concern will be Dorian’s slow motion when it is near Florida, placing some areas of the state at an increasing risk of a prolonged, drawn-out event of strong winds, dangerous storm surge, and heavy rainfall,” the center said.

The storm began Friday over the Atlantic as a Category 2 but was already expected to be classified a Category 3 later in the day, with sustained winds of at least 110 miles per hour (175 km per hour).

The entire state of Florida was under a declaration of emergency, and Governor Ron DeSantis has activated 2,500 National Guard troops, with another 1,500 on standby.

Forecasters predicted the storm would grow more ferocious as it gained fuel from the warm waters off Florida, slamming into the state late on Monday or early Tuesday. Tropical storm winds could be felt in Florida as soon as Saturday.

No evacuations were ordered as of early Friday, but many were expected as the storm’s path becomes clearer before it makes landfall.

If, as expected, the storm reaches Category 4 over the weekend, its winds will blow at more than 130 mph (210 kph). There was concern that it could slow from its current 12-mph (9-kph) march across the map, giving it more time to draw fuel from warm seas.

Recent NHC weather models show Dorian smacking into the center of Florida. It was trending northwest in the latest advisory issued at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on Friday.

The storm could roll inland toward Orlando on Tuesday or early Wednesday, weakening as it moves away from the sea. Other NHC weather models show it tracking south toward Miami before hitting the peninsula, or heading north to the Georgia coast.

Along with the dangerous winds, the storm was expected to drop 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) of rain on the coastal United States, with some areas getting as much as 15 inches (38 cm).

“This rainfall may cause life-threatening flash floods,” NHC forecasters said.

President Donald Trump on Thursday canceled a planned weekend trip to Poland, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place, so he can make sure resources are properly directed for the storm.

“Now it’s looking like it could be an absolute monster,” Trump said in a video posted on Twitter, adding that food and water were being shipped to Florida.

Governor DeSantis said Floridians need to take the storm seriously.

“Hurricane #Dorian is moving slowly & gaining strength,” DeSantis wrote on Twitter. “Now is the time to get prepared & have a plan.”

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in 12 counties to assist with storm readiness, response and recovery.

‘NOT LOOKING GOOD’

Angela Johnson, a 39-year-old bar manager in South Florida, said on Thursday, “We’re worried. This is not looking good for us.”

“We woke up a lot more scared than we went to bed last night, and the news is not getting any better,” said Johnson, who manages Coconuts On The Beach, a bar and restaurant on the surfing beach in the town of Cocoa Beach.

Officials were making piles of sand available for Cocoa Beach residents to fill sandbags starting on Friday.

Dorian could churn across dozens of launchpads owned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Air Force and companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Miami and Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Andrew Hay, Helen Coster in New York, Alexandra Alper, Joey Roulette and Eric Beech in Washington; writing by Paul Simao; editing by Jane Merriman and Jonathan Oatis)

Florida extends state of emergency as Hurricane Dorian looms

Shoppers encounter empty bread shelves at a store while buying supplies ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

By Zach Fagenson and Gabriella Borter

MIAMI (Reuters) – Florida’s governor on Thursday extended a state of emergency to the whole state ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian, which is forecast to strengthen into a highly dangerous Category 4 storm during the weekend before hitting the Atlantic coast.

Governor Ron DeSantis took the step as authorities canceled some commercial flights, planned precautions at rocket launch sites along the Space Coast and prepared to give out sand to residents for sandbags ahead of the storm’s arrival.

Spurred on by warm late-summer waters, Dorian is predicted to pack winds reaching 130 mph (209 kph) in 72 hours, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said on Thursday.

That would make it a Category 4 storm, the second-strongest on the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity.

The center describes Category 4 storms as capable of causing “catastrophic damage” including severe damage to well-built homes. It said in such storms, “Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed.”

Dorian is likely to make landfall on Florida’s eastern coast on Monday before lingering over central Florida on Tuesday but tropical storm-force winds from Dorian could begin in parts of Florida as early as Saturday evening, the hurricane center said. The storm could affect big population centers as well as major Florida tourist destinations.

“All residents, especially those along the east coast, need to be prepared for possible impacts,” DeSantis said in a statement. “As it increases strength, this storm has the potential to severely damage homes, businesses and buildings, which is why all Floridians should remain vigilant. Do not wait until it is too late to make a plan.”

The governor had declared a state of emergency for 26 counties on the east coast but extended it on Thursday to the whole of Florida.

Currently a Category 1 hurricane, Dorian was headed toward the Bahamas on Thursday after sideswiping Caribbean islands without doing major damage. Dorian is expected to strengthen and slam the Bahamas and the southeastern United States with rain, strong winds and life-threatening surf over the next few days.

Dorian was packing maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (137 km per hour) on Thursday morning some 220 miles (355 km) north-northwest of San Juan, and about 370 miles (600 km) east of the Bahamas, the hurricane center said.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Floridians to heed official warnings.

“Hurricane Dorian looks like it will be hitting Florida late Sunday night,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Be prepared and please follow State and Federal instructions, it will be a very big Hurricane, perhaps one of the biggest!”

Jim McKnight, city manager of Cocoa Beach on central Florida’s Atlantic coast, made sure construction sites were secured with possible dangers like scaffolding taken down to prevent flying objects.

“We’re worried. This is not looking good for us. We woke up a lot more scared than we went to bed last night, and the news is not getting any better,” said Angela Johnson, 39, bar manager at Coconuts On The Beach, a Cocoa Beach bar and restaurant on the town’s surfing beach.

Officials were making piles of sand available for Cocoa Beach residents to fill sandbags starting on Friday.

The biggest hurricane to have come ashore in the area in recent history was Jeanne in 2004, which made land around Port St. Lucie as a Category 3 storm.

‘EXTREMELY DANGEROUS’

“Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane on Friday, and remain an extremely dangerous hurricane through the weekend,” the hurricane center said, warning of an increasing likelihood of life-threatening storm surge along portions of Florida’s east coast late in the weekend.

Two flights from the Orlando International Airport to Puerto Rico were canceled.

The Universal Orlando Resort theme park, owned by Comcast Corp, said it was following the approaching storm closely. Walt Disney Co, which operates the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, did not return requests for comment.

The Cape Canaveral space center said it would close Saturday afternoon with a skeleton team of roughly 100 staff staying behind in the launch control room to monitor the storm and the site’s aerospace assets.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center said it would move a 400-foot (122-meter) tall, $650-million mobile launcher structure used to assemble the agency’s rocket for future moon missions from a launchpad and into a building to take shelter during Dorian’s likely impact.

Nearby towns were checking storm drains and back-up generators for waste-water plants as well as setting up round-the-clock shifts for emergency personnel.

The University of Central Florida, one of the largest U.S. universities by student population, said its main campus in Orlando will close on Friday afternoon.

The storm was forecast to approach on Saturday the northwest of the Bahamas, a popular tourist spot, the hurricane center said. Officials of the nation’s northernmost island Grand Bahama urged residents on Wednesday evening to secure houses and businesses immediately.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Miami and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Helen Coster in New York and Joey Roulette in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Will Dunham)

Dorian forecast to become highly dangerous Category 4 hurricane

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis talks to the media during a news conference as Hurricane Dorian approaches the state, at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, U.S. August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

(Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian is forecast to strengthen and become a highly dangerous Category 4 hurricane on Sunday, threatening the Atlantic coast of central and south Florida, the National Hurricane Center said on Thursday.

Spurred on by warm Atlantic waters, Dorian is predicted to pack winds reaching 130 mph (209 kph) in 72 hours, the Miami-based forecasting center said.

That would make it a Category 4 storm, the second-strongest type on the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity. The center describes Category 4 storms as capable of causing “catastrophic damage” including severe damage to well-built homes. It said in such storms, “Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed.”

Dorian is likely to make landfall on Florida’s eastern coast on Monday, before lingering over central Florida on Tuesday, forecasters at the hurricane center said in an advisory.

Currently a Category 1 hurricane, Dorian took aim at the Bahamas and the Florida coast on Thursday after sideswiping the Caribbean without doing major damage. Dorian is expected to strengthen and slam the Bahamas and the southeastern United States with rain, strong winds and life-threatening surf over the next few days.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Floridians to heed official warnings. Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Wednesday and asked residents along the state’s east coast to stock up with at least seven days worth of supplies such as food and water.

“Hurricane Dorian looks like it will be hitting Florida late Sunday night,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Be prepared and please follow State and Federal instructions, it will be a very big Hurricane, perhaps one of the biggest!”

The U.S. Coast Guard said all pleasure boats at the Port of Key West should seek safe harbor before the Labor Day weekend begins and ocean-going vessels should make plans to leave the port ahead of the storm.

‘EXTREMELY DANGEROUS’

“Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane on Friday, and remain an extremely dangerous hurricane through the weekend,” the hurricane center said, warning of an increasing likelihood of life-threatening storm surge along portions of Florida’s east coast late in the weekend.

The storm was packing maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (137 km per hour) on Thursday morning some 220 miles (355 km) north-northwest of San Juan, and about 370 miles (600 km) east of the Bahamas, the hurricane center said.

“On this track, Dorian should move over the Atlantic well east of the southeastern and central Bahamas today and on Friday,” forecasters said, “and approach the northwestern Bahamas Saturday.”

The storm could affect big population centers as well as major Florida tourist destinations.

The Universal Orlando Resort theme park, owned by Comcast Corp, said it was following the approaching storm closely.

“We are closely monitoring the weather. At this time our park operations and hours are continuing as normal. We have plans and procedures for serious weather that are time-proven and we will continue to make operating decisions as we learn more,” a theme park representative said in an email.

Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane by Friday afternoon and continue to gain strength until it makes landfall.

Local residents fill their cars with gas after waiting in line ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

Local residents fill their cars with gas after waiting in line ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

Trump issued an emergency declaration on Wednesday night for the U.S. Virgin Islands, ordering federal assistance with disaster relief for the U.S. territory. On Tuesday, he made a similar declaration for Puerto Rico, and also renewed a feud with island officials over how disaster relief funds from previous hurricanes.

Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 that killed about 3,000 people soon after the island filed for bankruptcy. On Wednesday, it escaped fresh disaster as Dorian avoided the territory and headed toward Florida.

Preparations were mounting in the Bahamas, which could be hard hit.

Jeffrey Simmons, the country’s acting director of the Department of Meteorology, said severe weather could strike the southeast Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Helen Coster in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Will Dunham)