FBI was warned about Florida man accused of killing 17 at school

By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation was warned in September about an ominous online comment by the 19-year-old man accused of killing 17 people at his former high school but was unable to locate him, an agent said on Thursday.

Authorities said the ex-student, identified as Nikolas Cruz, walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near Miami, on Wednesday and opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle in the second-deadliest shooting at a public school in U.S. history.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a memorial following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Bau

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a memorial following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur

Cruz may have left warning signs on social media in the form of a comment on a YouTube video that read “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” That comment troubled the person whose video Cruz commented on, Mississippi bail bondsman Ben Bennight, who passed it on to the FBI, according to a video he posted online late Wednesday.

“No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time, location or the true identity of the person who made the comment,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Lasky told reporters. Investigators were unable to find the commenter, he added.

The FBI is conducting an extensive review of how it handled that tip to see if mistakes were made, a federal law enforcement official told Reuters.

Wednesday’s shooting was the 18th in a U.S. school this year, according to gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. It stirred the long-simmering U.S. debate on the right to bear arms, which is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

President Donald Trump addressed the shooting in a White House speech that emphasized school safety and mental health while avoiding any mention of gun policy.

“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” Trump said at the White House. “We must actually make that difference.”

Broward County schools superintendent Robert Runcie called for action on gun laws.

“Now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws,” Runcie told a news conference.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives criticized the Republican leadership for refusing to take up legislation on tightening background checks for prospective gun buyers.

Mourners react during a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Mourners react during a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday’s shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“It’s appalling,” Representative Mike Thompson told reporters. “Thirty people every day are killed by someone using a gun, and the best we can do is say we need more information?”

The Republican-controlled Congress last year revoked Obama-era regulations meant to make it harder for those with severe mental illness to pass FBI background checks for guns, saying the rule deprived the mentally ill of their gun rights.

At least one member of Trump’s cabinet called for action.

“Personally I think the gun violence, it’s a tragedy what we’ve seen yesterday, and I urge Congress to look at these issues,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers.

Fifteen people were injured in Wednesday’s shooting, according to local hospital officials.

‘BROKEN HUMAN BEING’

Cruz’s court-appointed lawyer said he had expressed remorse for his crimes.

“He’s a broken human being,” public defender Melisa McNeill told reporters. “He’s sad, he’s mournful he’s remorseful.”

Nikolas Cruz (C) appears via video monitor with Melisa McNeill (R), his public defender, at a bond court hearing after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Susan Stocker/Pool

Nikolas Cruz (C) appears via video monitor with Melisa McNeill (R), his public defender, at a bond court hearing after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Susan Stocker/Pool

Cruz had done paramilitary training with a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida, a leader of the group said.

“He had some involvement with the Clearwater Republic of Florida cell at some point,” Jordan Jereb said in a telephone interview. Reuters could not immediately verify the claim.

Cruz loved guns and had been expelled from high school for disciplinary reasons, police and former classmates said.

Authorities said he marched into the school wearing a gas mask and tossed smoke grenades, as well as pulling a fire alarm that sent students and staff pouring from classrooms as he began his rampage, according to Florida’s two U.S. senators, who were briefed by federal authorities.

In a brief court appearance, Cruz spoke only two words, “Yes ma’am,” when a judge asked him to confirm his name. He was ordered held without bond.

Cruz had recently moved in with another family after his mother’s death in November, according to Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family and local media, bringing his AR-15 along with his other belongings.

The family believed Cruz was depressed, but attributed that to his mother’s death, not mental illness.

Victims included an assistant football coach who sheltered students, a social science teacher and multiple students.

People who live on same street as Cruz said he alarmed them by shooting squirrels and rabbits in the neighborhood as well as chickens being raised in a nearby backyard. Several times a year, they observed law enforcement officials at his house.

“Killing animals was no problem for this young man,” said Rhoda Roxburgh, 45, who lived on the block for several years and whose parents continue to live there.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York, David Alexander, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington, Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Tom Brown)

Accused Florida high school gunman due in court, facing 17 murder counts

A man placed in handcuffs is led by police near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School following a shooting incident in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 14, 2018 in a still image taken from a video. WSVN.com via REUTERS

By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – A 19-year-old man who had been expelled from his Florida high school was due in court on Thursday, charged with 17 counts of murder, after authorities say he opened fire at the school, unleashing one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

The ex-student, identified as Nikolas Cruz, 19, walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Wednesday and opened fire on students and teachers, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said. Police believe he acted alone.

Cruz was expected to appear in court Thursday afternoon for a bond hearing, faced with 17 counts of premeditated murder, said Constance Simmons, a spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office.

Cruz was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and had multiple ammunition magazines when he surrendered to officers in a nearby residential area, police said. He loved guns and was expelled for unspecified disciplinary reasons, police and former classmates said.

The shooting in a community about 45 miles (72 km) north of Miami was the 18th in a U.S. school this year, according to gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, continuing a troubling pattern that has played out over the past few years.

It was the second-deadliest shooting in a U.S. public elementary or high school after the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

The deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was at Virginia Tech in 2007, when 32 people were killed.

The Florida shooting stirred the long-simmering U.S. debate on the right to bear arms, which are protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Schools across the country have installed electronically secured doors and added security staff, but few legislative solutions have emerged.

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior,” U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter on Thursday. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

Trump, who ordered flags to fly at half-staff in a sign of mourning, plans to address the nation from the White House at 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT), a spokeswoman said.

A law enforcement officer is assigned to every school in the Broward County district, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High board member Donna Korn told a local newspaper. The sheriff’s office also provides active shooter training and schools have a single point of entry, she said.

“We have prepared the campuses, but sometimes people still find a way to let these horrific things happen,” Korn said.

The first victim of the attack was publicly identified on Thursday as Aaron Feis, an assistant coach on the school’s football team and a school security guard who was shot while shielding students, the team said on Twitter.

 

Nikolas Cruz appears in a police booking photo after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder following a Parkland school shooting, at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 15, 2018. Broward County Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

Nikolas Cruz appears in a police booking photo after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder following a Parkland school shooting, at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 15, 2018. Broward County Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

‘THE WORST IN HUMANITY’

Hundreds of panicked students fled the building, running past heavily armed, helmeted police officers while others huddled in closets.

Parents raced to the school of 3,300 students and a nearby hotel that was set up as a checkpoint to find their children.

“This has been a day we’ve seen the worst in humanity,” Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said Wednesday.

The assailant wore a gas mask as he stalked into the school carrying a rifle, ammunition cartridges and smoke grenades, then pulled a fire alarm, prompting students and staff to pour from classrooms into hallways, according to Florida’s two U.S. senators, who were brief by federal authorities.

Cruz had recently moved in with another family after his mother’s death in November, according to Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family and local media, bringing his AR-15 along with his other belongings.

The family believed Cruz was depressed, but attributed that to his mother’s death, not mental illness.

“They didn’t see any danger. They didn’t see any kind of predilection this was going to happen,” Lewis told CNN.

Cruz may have left warning signs on social media. Buzzfeed reported that a person named Nikolas Cruz left a comment under a YouTube video that read “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The man who posted the video was alarmed and contacted the FBI, Buzzfeed reported.

Reuters was unable to immediately confirm those details.

Colton Haab, a 17-year-old junior and member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at the high school, said he realized the alarms were not a drill after hearing several shots fired and learning that three people had been shot.

“That for me changed it to an active shooter scenario,” he said. Haab rushed to his ROTC room and helped usher several dozen students inside, barricading them behind curtains made of Kevlar, a material used to make bullet-proof vests.

“We grabbed two pieces of two-by-four, a fire extinguisher and a chair,” Haab said. “If he was going to try to come in the room we were going to try to stop him with whatever we had.”

(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Parkland, Florida, Jonathan Allen in New York, Susan Heavey in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by John Stonestreet and Jeffrey Benkoe)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket soars in debut test launch from Florida

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018.

By Joey Roulette

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – The world’s most powerful rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, roared into space through clear blue skies on its debut test flight on Tuesday from a Florida launch site in another milestone for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private rocket service.

The 23-story-tall jumbo rocket, carrying a cherry red Tesla Roadster from the assembly line of Musk’s electric car company as a mock payload, thundered off its launchpad in billowing clouds of steam and rocket exhaust at 3:45 p.m (2045 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, where moon missions once began.

Boisterous cheering could be heard from SpaceX workers at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where a livestream feed of the event originated. At least 2,000 spectators cheered the blastoff from a campground near Cocoa Beach, 5 miles (8 km) from the space center.

Within three minutes, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters separated from the central rocket in one of the most critical points of the flight.

Then, capitalizing on cost-cutting reusable rocket technology pioneered by SpaceX, the two boosters flew themselves back to Earth for safe simultaneous touchdowns on twin landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, about eight minutes after launch. Each rocket unleashed a double sonic boom as it neared the landing zone.

The center booster rocket, which SpaceX had predicted was less likely to be salvaged, slammed into the Atlantic at about 300 miles per hour (483 kph), showering the deck of the nearby drone landing vessel and destroying two of the ship’s thrusters, Musk told a post-launch news conference.

‘CRAZY THINGS COME TRUE’

Still, the Silicon Valley mogul known for self-deprecating understatement hailed the launch as a victory and “a big relief.”

“I had this image of this giant explosion on the pad, with wheels bouncing down the road and the logo landing somewhere with a thud. But fortunately, that’s not what happened,” he said. “Crazy things come true.”

While the Falcon Heavy’s initial performance appeared, by all accounts, to have been near flawless, it remained to be seen whether the upper stage of the vehicle and its payload would survive a six-hour “cruise” phase to high Earth orbit through the planet’s radiation belts.

The launch, so powerful that it shook the walls of the press trailer at the complex, was conducted from the same site used by NASA’s towering Saturn 5 rockets to carry Apollo missions to the moon more than 40 years ago. SpaceX has said it aspires to send missions to Mars in the coming years.

The successful liftoff was a key turning point for Musk’s privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, which stands to gain a new edge over the handful of rivals vying for lucrative contracts with NASA, satellite companies and the U.S. military.

Falcon Heavy is designed to place up to 70 tons into standard low-Earth orbit at a cost of $90 million per launch. That is twice the lift capacity of the biggest existing rocket in America’s space fleet – the Delta 4 Heavy of rival United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co- for about a fourth the cost.

The demonstration flight put the Heavy into the annals of spaceflight as the world’s most powerful rocket in operation, with more lift capacity than any space vehicle to fly since NASA’s Saturn 5, which was retired in 1973, or the Soviet-era Energia, which flew its last mission in 1988.

Propelled by 27 rocket engines, the Heavy packs more than 5 million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly three times the force of the Falcon 9 booster rocket that until now has been the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet. The new rocket is essentially constructed from three Falcon 9s bolted together side by side.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur

‘NEW SPACE RACE?’

Going along for the ride in a bit of playful cross-promotional space theater was the sleek red, electric-powered sports car from Musk’s other transportation enterprise, Tesla Inc.

Adding to the whimsy, SpaceX planted a space-suited mannequin in the driver’s seat of the convertible Tesla Roadster.

Musk mused that “it may be discovered by some future alien race.” The white spacesuit was real, he said.

A third burn was successful, Musk Tweeted late on Tuesday, sending the Tesla Roadster into its planned trajectory.

“Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt,” he tweeted.

The roadster, which carries a plaque inscribed with the names of more than 6,000 SpaceX employees, could instead end up in perpetual Earth orbit.

The launch followed an impressive run of successful paid missions – 20 in all since January 2017, when SpaceX returned to flight following a 2016 launchpad accident that destroyed a $62 million rocket and a $200 million Israeli communications satellite that it was to put into orbit two days later.

Musk said he hoped Tuesday’s achievement would encourage a new “space race” by private ventures and other countries, an allusion to the 1960s Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“Space races are exciting,” he said.

SpaceX had previously announced plans to eventually use Falcon Heavy to launch two paying space tourists on a trip around the moon. Musk said on Monday he was now inclined to reserve that mission for an even more powerful SpaceX launch system, the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, whose development he said was proceeding more swiftly than expected.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral, Fla. and Gregg Newton in Cocoa Beach, Fla.; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Trump administration demands documents from ‘sanctuary cities’

People visit the Liberty State Island as Lower Manhattan is seen at the background in New York, U.S., August 17, 2017.

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday escalated its battle with so-called sanctuary cities that protect illegal immigrants from deportation, demanding documents on whether local law enforcement agencies are illegally withholding information from U.S. immigration authorities.

The Justice Department said it was seeking records from 23 jurisdictions — including America’s three largest cities, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as three states, California, Illinois and Oregon — and will issue subpoenas if they do not comply fully and promptly.

The administration has accused sanctuary cities of violating a federal law that prohibits local governments from restricting information about the immigration status of people arrested from being shared with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Many of the jurisdictions have said they already are in full compliance with the law. Some sued the administration after the Justice Department threatened to cut off millions of dollars in federal public safety grants. The cities have won in lower courts, but the legal fight is ongoing.

The Republican president’s fight with the Democratic-governed sanctuary cities, an issue that appeals to his hard-line conservative supporters, began just days after he took office last year when he signed an executive order saying he would block certain funding to municipalities that failed to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The order has since been partially blocked by a federal court.

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

Democratic mayors fired back, and some including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to skip a previously planned meeting on Wednesday afternoon at the White House with Trump.

“The Trump Justice Department can try to intimidate us with legal threats, but we will never abandon our values as a welcoming city or the rights of Chicago residents,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “The Trump administration’s actions undermine public safety by jeopardizing our philosophy of community policing, as they attempt to drive a wedge between immigrant communities and the police who serve them.”

IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN

The issue is part of Trump’s broader immigration crackdown. As a candidate, he threatened to deport all roughly 11 million of them. As president, he has sought to step up arrests of illegal immigrants, rescinded protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children and issued orders blocking entry of people from several Muslim-majority countries.

Other jurisdictions on the Justice Department’s list include: Denver; San Francisco; the Washington state county that includes Seattle; Louisville, Kentucky; California’s capital Sacramento; New York’s capital Albany, Mississippi’s capital Jackson; West Palm Beach, Florida; the county that includes Albuquerque, New Mexico; and others.

The Justice Department said certain sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia were not on its list due to pending litigation.

On Twitter on Wednesday, De Blasio objected to the Justice Department’s decision to, in his words, “renew their racist assault on our immigrant communities. It doesn’t make us safer and it violates America’s core values.”

“The White House has been very clear that we don’t support sanctuary cities,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, adding that mayors cannot “pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”

The Justice Department last year threatened to withhold certain public safety grants to sanctuary cities if they failed to adequately share information with ICE, prompting legal battles in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

In the Chicago case, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction barring the Justice Department from withholding this grant money on the grounds that its action was likely unconstitutional. This funding is typically used to help local police improve crime-fighting techniques, buy equipment and assist crime victims.

The Justice Department is appealing that ruling. It said that litigation has stalled the issuance of these grants for fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham)

Commuters in U.S. South face tough trek after deadly storm

Snow cover in the U.S. 1-18-18 - National Weather Service

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Commuters in the U.S. South faced frigid temperatures and dangerously slick roads on Thursday after a winter storm, responsible for at least eight deaths, thrashed the region with heavy snow and winds that snapped power lines.

Schools in New Orleans, Charlotte and Atlanta and across the region canceled classes on Thursday as winter weather advisories from the National Weather Service (NWS) remained in effect from eastern Texas to Florida and north into southeast Virginia.

“Motorists are urged to use extreme caution, or avoid travel if possible,” the NWS said in an advisory, warning that freezing temperatures would keep roads icy.

Wind chill advisories were in effect as temperatures will feel like they have fallen below zero Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) in parts of the Carolinas, Alabama and Virginia.

More than 14,000 households and businesses in North Carolina and Louisiana and in various parts of the South were without power early on Thursday, utility companies said online.

The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana declared states of emergency because of severe conditions that made traveling treacherous.

“We cannot stress it enough for everyone to stay off the roads unless you have no choice,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement, adding the storm had caused 1,600 traffic accidents.

More than 9 inches (23 cm) of snow have fallen in Durham, North Carolina since Monday, with 7 inches (18 cm) or more measured at various locations across southern Virginia, the NWS said.

The storm has caused at least eight deaths.

In Austin, Texas, a vehicle plunged more than 30 feet (9 meters) off a frozen overpass on Tuesday, killing a man in his 40s, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service said on its Twitter feed.

An 82-year-old woman who suffered from dementia was found dead on Wednesday behind her Houston-area home, likely due to exposure to cold, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said. Another woman died from cold exposure in Memphis, police said on Twitter.

In Georgia, two people were fatally struck by a car that slid on an ice patch near Macon, local media reports said.

A man was killed when he was knocked off an elevated portion of Interstate 10 in New Orleans and an 8-month-old baby died in a car crash in suburban New Orleans, local news reports said.

A woman died in West Virginia in a car crash, local reports said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Edmund Blair and Bernadette Baum)

Florida communities scramble to help displaced Puerto Ricans

Puerto Rican Debora Oquendo, 43, makes a phone call to a doctor for her 10-month-old daughter in a hotel room where she lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 4, 2017.

By Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez

KISSIMMEE, Florida (Reuters) – At Leslie Campbell’s office in the central Florida city of St. Cloud, the phone will not stop ringing.

Director of special programs for the Osceola County School District, Campbell helps enroll students fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Her job has been a busy one. Since hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean in September, over 2,400 new students have arrived in the district. That is enough to fill more than two typical-sized elementary schools. Dozens more youngsters show up weekly.

“We’re just inundated, from the minute we come in, to the minute we leave,” said Campbell, who helps families obtain transportation, meals and clothing.

Across the country, state and local officials are scrambling to manage an influx of Puerto Ricans, a migration that is impacting education budgets, housing, demographics and voter rolls in communities where these newcomers are landing.

Florida, already home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, is on the front lines. About 300,000 island residents have arrived in the state since early October, according to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. The influx is nearly 2.5 times the size of the Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 Cubans ashore in 1980.

Some Puerto Rican arrivals have passed through Florida on their way to New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. Some may eventually return home. But many will not. The island is still reeling months after Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, wreaked catastrophic damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Nearly 40 percent of residents still lack electricity. The economy has been devastated.

For Florida, the inflow of Puerto Ricans is altering public budgets and perhaps the political calculus in a state that President Donald Trump won by a slim margin in 2016. Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are on pace to overtake Cuban-Americans within a few years as the state’s largest Latino voting bloc. Many criticized the Trump administration’s hurricane response as inadequate.

Politicians are taking notice. Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott has reached out to these newcomers. The state has opened reception centers where Puerto Ricans can apply for food stamps and Medicaid, the federal healthcare system for the poor. Scott has asked for an additional $100 million in state spending to house arriving families, many of whom are doubled up with relatives or packed into aging hotels.

Washington, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with the question of how to help Puerto Rico, having long rejected the idea of a federal bailout for the insolvent U.S. territory, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May. Congress appears unlikely to grant anywhere near the $94.4 billion the territory’s leaders estimate it would take to rebuild.

As federal lawmakers dither, state and local taxpayers are watching the tab to resettle islanders grow.

Statewide, more than 11,200 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island have enrolled in Florida public schools since the storms, according to the governor’s office. Most arrived after a deadline that determines state funding based on enrollment, resulting in an estimated loss for local districts of $42 million during the 2017 fall semester, a Reuters analysis shows.

Requests for public assistance climbed by 5 percent in Florida during the last three months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016, according to state figures. Federal food stamp issuance, driven by victims of hurricanes Irma and Maria, jumped 24 percent or $294 million over the same period.

The state is also seeing more extremely ill patients from Puerto Rico.

Keyshla Betancourt Irizarry, 22, came to Florida in October on a humanitarian flight with her mother and brother. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island whose healthcare system is in tatters.

Now living in Orlando, she is on Florida’s Medicaid plan, which pays for her radiation treatments. The family has no plans to return to the territory.

“I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria,” Betancourt said.

Medicaid patients cost the federal government more on the mainland than in Puerto Rico, because Washington caps Medicaid funding sent to its territories. Such costs will only grow if Congress fails to stabilize Puerto Rico, said Juan Hernandez Mayoral, former director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the territory in Washington.

“You can pay for it in the 50 states or you can pay much less in Puerto Rico,” Hernandez said. “The hurricane has sped up the migration.”

A Reuters photo essay (http://reut.rs/2AQmzh6) captures images of displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida.

CLASSROOM SQUEEZE

Central Florida was one of the country’s fastest-growing regions even before the disasters as Puerto Ricans fleeing a sputtering economy flocked here for jobs in the booming tourist trade. An estimated 360,000 have settled in the area, the largest concentration in Florida.

The Osceola County school district has enrolled thousands of new students in recent years, including nearly 2,700 in 2015-2016 alone. To accommodate them, the district hired more bilingual teachers, converted offices into classrooms, added portable units and built a new middle school. In 2016, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to provide more funding.

Hurricane Maria has compounded the urgency.

“We have students coming without clothes or records. Some are exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” said Kelvin Soto, an Osceola County school board member. “We’re handling it well, but it’s straining our resources.”

Recent arrivals include Felix Martell and his five-year-old daughter Eliany, who settled in Ocala, Florida, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Orlando. Martell is the sole caretaker for the child after his wife died two years ago. He worried Eliany’s education would suffer in Puerto Rico due to lengthy school closures following Maria.

Father and daughter are now living in a run-down hotel paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Martell has yet to find a job. Still, he said there is no turning back.

“The girl has learned more in three weeks of school here than in the entire semester on the island,” he said. “I am concentrating on her future.”

TIGHT HOUSING

A shortage of affordable housing is acute for Puerto Rican emigres.

The Community Hope Center, a nonprofit in Kissimmee, Florida, south of Orlando, has been besieged with requests for shelter, according to Rev. Mary Downey, the executive director.

“People are calling us and saying, ‘we’re homeless now,'” Downey said. “It’s awful. There is simply not enough housing to meet the needs.”

Central Florida housing is a bargain compared to places such as New York or San Francisco, but it is beyond the reach of many newcomers lacking savings or jobs. Homes under $200,000 sell quickly, and Orlando-area rents are growing faster than the national average. Local officials say the situation could worsen as families that are doubling and tripling up eventually seek their own places.

Deborah Oquendo Fuentes, 43, and her 11-month-old baby girl Genesis Rivera share a FEMA-paid hotel room in Orlando after fleeing Puerto Rico in October. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month.

“I don’t have enough money to move to another place,” Oquendo said. “I feel alone, and I’m afraid.”

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Blizzard roars into U.S. Northeast, snarling travel

A lone visitor takes a picture near the brink of the ice covered Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Canada.

By Gina Cherelus and Scott Malone

NEW YORK/BOSTON (Reuters) – The first major winter storm of 2018 bore down on the U.S. Northeast on Thursday, closing schools and government offices and disrupting travel as work crews scrambled to clear roads of snow before plummeting temperatures turn it to treacherous ice.

After bringing rare snowfall to the southeast a day earlier, the storm carried rapid accumulation and high winds to New York, where subway systems appeared less crowded than usual as many commuters heeded officials’ warnings to stay home.

Blizzard warnings were in place along the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the National Weather Service forecasting winds as high as 55 miles per hour (89 kph) that may bring down tree limbs and knock out power.

More than a foot (30 cm) of snow was forecast for Boston and coastal areas in northern New England.

The storm is the product of a rapid and rare plunge in barometric pressure that some weather forecasters are referring to as bombogenesis, or the so-called “bomb cyclone.”

The term comes from the merging of two words: bomb and cyclogenisis, according to private forecaster AccuWeather.

On Wednesday, the storm dumped snow on Florida’s capital Tallahassee for the first time in 30 years, and was expected to last through the day.

About 3,000 airline flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled ahead of the storm’s arrival on Thursday, with New York’s three major airports and Boston’s Logan International seeing as many as three out of four flights called off, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.

Federal government offices planned to delay opening for two hours on Thursday, while state officials in Connecticut and Massachusetts ordered non-essential workers to stay home. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage ordered state offices closed for the day.

“Travel conditions are expected to be treacherous,” LePage said in a statement. “Avoiding unnecessary travel will keep accidents to a minimum and allow state and municipal road crews to safely go about their work.”

The snow storm brought a break in extreme cold temperatures that have gripped much of the region since Christmas, frozen part of the Niagara Falls, played havoc with public works and impeded firefighting in places where temperatures barely broke 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 centigrade).

But forecasters warned temperatures would drop sharply on Friday and into the weekend. That left work crews scrambling to clear snow off roadways and sidewalks on Thursday before it freezes to ice and makes conditions more treacherous for pedestrians and drivers alike.

“These are tough conditions to move around in, so if you don’t need to be on the road … you shouldn’t,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Twitter. “Everyone needs to take this weather very seriously.”

Schools were ordered to close in New York, many parts of New Jersey, Boston and other cities through the region.

A woman walks down the street during a blizzard in Long Beach, New York, U.S. January 4, 2018.

A woman walks down the street during a blizzard in Long Beach, New York, U.S. January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

SOUTHERN SNOW

Private forecaster AccuWeather said snow would fall quickly during the day, at a rate of several inches per hour, with the storm intensified by the bombogenesis effect.

The phenomenon occurs when a storm’s barometric pressure drops by 24 millibars in 24 hours. As a result, the accumulation of snow and winds intensifies, which can cause property damage and power outages.

More than 35,000 customers were without power in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia early on Thursday, utilities reported online.

A part of US-13 at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia was closed due to high winds early on Thursday while state transportation departments throughout the region reported dozens of delays due to deteriorating roads conditions.

Late on Wednesday, a baggage car and two sleeper cars on an Amtrak train traveling from Miami to New York, with 311 passengers aboard, derailed as it was slowly backing into a station in Savannah, Georgia. No one was injured, an Amtrak spokesman said.

The cold has been blamed for at least nine deaths over the past few days, including those of two homeless people in Houston.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Alison Williams and Bernadette Baum)

Storms slam U.S. Southeast as bitter cold drags on

A woman stops to photograph the frozen Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain in New York, U.S., January 3, 2018.

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Winter storms swept up the U.S Southeast toward New England on Wednesday as snow, freezing rain and strong winds added to record-shattering cold that had much of the eastern United States in its grip.

The wintry mix and low wind chills could cause widespread power outages and leave roads icy, making commuting treacherous for millions of Americans from northern Florida to southern Virginia, the National Weather Service said in a series of warnings.

Some schools and universities in those states were closed on Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. Many flights out of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia and Tallahassee Airport in Florida were canceled.

The weather service said its Tallahassee office measured a snow and sleet accumulation of 0.1 inch (2.5mm) on its roof early in the day, the first time Florida’s capital has had snow in nearly 30 years.

The service said travel in northeastern Florida was likely to be difficult and dangerous.

Two to 3 inches of snow was expected in northeastern Florida, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, according to early morning forecasts, said weather service meteorologist Bob Oravec.

Some Florida and Georgia residents shared images on social media of light snow accumulating.

“So a #SnowDay in #Florida. We know hurricanes. Snow? Not sure what to do here. How do you luge?,” wrote one Twitter user, @thejalexkelly.

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott urged residents in the north of the state to brace themselves for the cold. He said cold weather shelters have either opened or would be opened in 22 of the state’s 67 counties.

Some coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia could ultimately receive up to 6 inches (15 cm) of snow, along with an accumulation of ice, while parts of New England could see 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) of snow and wind gusts of 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) by the end of week, the weather service said.

Late on Tuesday, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 28 of the state’s 159 counties.

As the storm bears down, an arctic air mass will remain entrenched over the eastern two-thirds of the country through the end of the week, forecasters said. The record-low temperatures were to blame for at least eight deaths in Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan over the past several days, officials said.

A large swath of the Midwest was under a wind chill warning on Wednesday as places like Cleveland and Indianapolis had temperatures in the wind of 5 to 20 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit (minus 20 to minus 29 degrees Celsius), while the Deep South faced deep-freeze temperatures that threatened crops and pipes, the weather service warned.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Jonathan Oatis)

Florida man sentenced to 25 years for attempt to blow up synagogue

(Reuters) – A Florida man was sentenced by a U.S. judge on Tuesday to 25 years in prison for trying to blow up a synagogue in the state during a Jewish holiday last year, court officials said.

James Medina, 41, will first be treated at a U.S. prison medical facility for a brain cyst and mental illness before being moved into the general prison population, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola in Miami ruled.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation began watching Medina, who had converted to Islam, after he began expressing anti-Semitic views and a wish to attack a synagogue. They launched an investigation in late March 2016, court documents showed

Medina, who faced up to life in prison, had pleaded guilty in August 2017 to charges of an attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and an attempted religious hate crime, court documents showed.

“This is a very, very serious offense,” Scola was quoted as saying in court by the Miami Herald.

Medina’s federal public defender, Hector Dopico, declined to comment when reached by Reuters on Tuesday afternoon.

Medina met with an FBI-affiliated confidential informant and explained his plan to attack a synagogue in Aventura, Florida, near Miami, the documents showed.

“Medina wanted to witness the explosion, hearing and feeling the blast from (a) nearby car,” the informant cited Medina as saying, according to the documents.

Asked why he wanted to do it, Medina said he wanted to kill Jews, adding: “It’s my call of duty.”

Medina was supplied with what he thought was an explosive device by federal law enforcement. The device was inert and posed no danger to the public, federal law enforcement said in court filings.

He was taken into custody as he approached the synagogue with the inert device and later admitted to his crimes, they said. No one was hurt.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; editing by Bernadette Baum and Diane Craft)

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House plans to ask the U.S. Congress on Friday for about $45 billion in additional aid for disaster relief to cover damage from hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida and other disaster damage, a congressional aide said on late Thursday.

The request would be significantly short of what some government officials say is needed.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello on Monday requested $94.4 billion from Congress to rebuild the island’s infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals devastated by Hurricane Maria. The state of Texas earlier this month submitted a request for $61 billion in federal aid.

Last month, Congress approved $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters and said it planned to seek another round of funding after it reviewed requests from federal agencies and state and U.S. commonwealth governments.

Puerto Rico sought $31.1 billion for housing, followed by $17.8 billion to rebuild and make more resilient the power grid.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said late Thursday at a congressional hearing his staff had been briefed on the White House that would be released on Friday that he called “wholly inadequate” but he did not disclose the precise amount.

He said the White House had also “short-changed” funding for wildfires that have struck the western United States. The October disaster assistance bill included $576.5 million for wildfire-fighting efforts.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sandra Maler)