Together again: Elderly New Yorkers rejoice as senior centers reopen

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – After more than a year of pandemic-forced separation, 85-year old Justo Fleitas was back at the pool table at his neighborhood’s senior center, finally reunited with a small group of friends and his cue stick.

“It’s beautiful, no words to say how I feel,” said Fleitas, an avid pool player and a regular at the Star Senior Center in Manhattan.

On Monday this week, senior centers in New York City welcomed back the city’s elderly for indoor activities after being closed for more than a year.

Fleitas, who left Cuba for the United States in his 20’s, worked as a barber until he retired more than 20 years ago. After being confined at home with his wife during the coronavirus pandemic that ravaged New York, he said he has been eagerly waiting for the center to reopen.

He was far from alone in that pent up anticipation.

“Before we opened, seniors were already calling, asking for us to reopen,” said Maggie Hernandez, a program coordinator at Star Senior Center. “They were preparing themselves for weeks for this to happen.”

Centers such as the one in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan are a lifeline for many senior citizens who rely on them for food, companionship and recreation.

When the pandemic shut them down last spring, along with most other activities, some older New Yorkers, at particularly high risk for severe COVID-19, were forced to hunker down at home, often alone.

Staff at Star Senior Center made some 35,000 wellness calls to its seniors who reported suffering from isolation, anxiety and depression, Hernandez said.

‘MISSED HERE SO MUCH’

On the first day of reopening, the center was bustling at lunch hour. Gaggles of seniors gathered around the large tables spread out around the room, filling the place with animated conversations for the first time in more than a year.

Helen Anderson started frequenting the Star Senior Center a few years ago, attracted by its diversity. When the pandemic hit, Anderson said she “tried to survive” by speaking on the phone with the center’s staff.

“Oh my goodness, I missed here so much,” said Anderson, 72, as she tucked a face covering under her glasses to keep it from sliding down.

Anderson, who lives alone, said she started seeing her daughter in person during the Christmas holidays late last year, although she did not allow her inside the apartment for fear of getting sick.

The retired nurse said she religiously watched New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daily news conferences hoping for an announcement about the reopening of senior centers.

On June 1, de Blasio said senior centers could resume outdoor activities and indoor gatherings would resume on June 14.

“Seniors bore the brunt of the COVID crisis, they were the most vulnerable,” the mayor said at the time of the announcement.

New Yorkers 75 and older were hospitalized for COVID-19 at rates four times higher than the rest of the population and died at seven times the rate of the rest of the residents, city health data shows https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data-totals.page#summary.

About 128 of the 250 senior centers in the Department for the Aging’s (DFTA) network were reopening as of late Tuesday, according to a spokesperson for the department.

Some centers were still wrestling with the logistics of how to safely resume operations as they are open to both vaccinated and unvaccinated seniors.

“Senior centers are notoriously small places,” said Abbie LeWarn, the assistant director of the Queens Center for Gay Seniors.

Prior to the pandemic, up to 70 seniors would frequent that center daily, said LeWarn. But having a tight space with few windows was one of the hurdles to a safe reopening, despite seniors’ excitement.

On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo lifted most remaining COVID-19 restrictions. But safety measures like face coverings and social distancing will remain in place at senior centers, at least for now, DFTA said, citing unchanged guidance from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Despite the rain, more than 40 members showed up to Star on Monday. About 150 seniors would frequent the center on a typical day before the pandemic, Hernandez said.

A small but determined group of elderly women stretched with the aid of chairs and moved to the beat of blaring Latin music, taking their cue from an instructor who shouted words of encouragement into a microphone.

“We’re all so thrilled to be back,” Hernandez said.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Demonstrations, defiance as Myanmar marks 4 months since coup

(Reuters) -Pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in towns around Myanmar on Tuesday to denounce the country’s military, marking four months since it ousted an elected government and unleashed a wave of nationwide anger.

Despite a bloody crackdown by security forces, Myanmar’s military is still struggling to impose order amid protests and strikes, and fighting on multiple fronts in border regions as civilians take up arms against the junta.

Protests took place in the south in Luang Lone, several areas of the Sagaing division including Kale and Monywa, and the commercial hub Yangon, according to images carried by mainstream and social media.

“This is not over yet. We still have our turn,” read a sign carried by one protester.

Schools officially reopened across Myanmar for the first time since the Feb. 1 coup, but turnout was low due to security concerns and a boycott over the junta’s suspension of tens of thousands of teachers opposed to its rule.

Some students held demonstrations with blood-splattered white uniforms.

Security forces have killed 840 people since the coup, according to figures from activists cited by the United Nations. The junta says about 300 people have died.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, says it seized power because of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper carried a quote from junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on Tuesday saying the current crisis was caused by “dishonesty of democracy” in the election, under a large headline that said “Tatmadaw values democracy”.

The military’s use of lethal force against its own people has caused outrage among western countries, and concern among its neighbors. In April, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced a five-point consensus towards resolving the crisis, though no timeframe was agreed.

But four diplomatic sources have told Reuters that the chair and secretary-general of ASEAN are planning to visit Myanmar this week, to meet junta leaders, among other stakeholders.

It was not clear if they would meet detainees or members of a shadow unity government formed to challenge the junta and undercut its efforts to gain international recognition.

HEAVY TOLL

The unrest has taken a heavy toll in the countryside, where clashes between Myanmar’s well-equipped military and ethnic minority armies or newly formed People’s Defense Forces have displaced tens of thousands of people.

On Tuesday, a local aid group said 8,000 people were in camps having fled the town of Mindat in Chin State, which the army took control of last month after days of clashes with militias armed mostly with hunting rifles.

The people’s militias have stepped up ambushes in recent weeks on troops in Kayah state bordering Thailand, where witnesses said fierce fighting and retaliatory shelling and air strikes had taken place late on Monday in the town of Demoso.

A resident shared video and images with Reuters of soldiers he said were killed in Demoso late on Monday. He said he saw six bodies and residents had counted 20.

The Karenni Nationalities Defense Force said on its Facebook page that 80 army soldiers had been killed on Monday, while one of its fighters and a civilian were also casualties.

Reuters could not verify the information and a spokesman for the junta did not answer calls seeking comment.

Myanmar state television made no mention of the Demoso unrest in its nightly news bulletin.

Fighting in Kayah has displaced about 37,000 people in recent weeks, according to the United Nations. Many have fled into jungles and are in need of food and medicine.

The Elders, a group of former national leaders founded by the late Nelson Mandela, on Tuesday called on the international community, including ASEAN, to turn up pressure on the junta.

“Myanmar is currently on a dangerous path towards state failure,” its chair, Mary Robinson, said in a statement.

“Allowing the coup to succeed through inaction and disregard would further undermine the international rules-based order upon which global stability depends.”

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Little food and water for Congolese fleeing volcano

By Djaffar Al Katanty

SAKE, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -Families fleeing a volcano eruption in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo said on Friday they were struggling to find enough food and water as the United Nations called for aid and warned about the risk of cholera.

At least 31 people died when Mount Nyiragongo sent a wall of lava spreading towards Goma on Saturday last week, destroying 3,000 homes along the way and cutting a major road used to bring aid to the strife-torn region.

The lava stopped just short of the city limits, but thousands more people fled early on Thursday when the government warned that the volcano, one of the world’s most active, could erupt again.

Many escaped to Sake, a town 13 miles (20 km) northwest of Goma that is prone to cholera outbreaks, UNICEF said.

People slept wherever they could – on the side of the road and inside classrooms and a church. Kabuo Asifiwe Muliwavyo, 36, told Reuters she and her seven children had not eaten since arriving on Thursday.

“They told us that there will be a second eruption and that there will be a big gas explosion,” she said as she cradled her crying one-year-old. “But since we moved, there is nothing here … We are starving.”

Around 400,000 people need support or protection, the U.N. children’s fund (UNICEF) said in a statement.

“With an increased risk of a cholera outbreak, we are appealing for urgent international assistance to avert what could be a catastrophe for children,” UNICEF’s representative in Congo, Edouard Beigbeder, said.

UNDER THE STARS

Danga Tungulo and his four children slept next to the road in Sake. Some local residents brought them water, but they had not eaten since they left Goma the previous day, he said.

“They told everyone that assistance would be organized, that money would be disbursed by the government,” said Hassan Kanga, a lawyer who fled after the eruption. “And yet, you find us under the stars.”

The evacuation order was issued around 1 a.m. local time on Thursday after radar images showed molten rock flowing under Goma.

The movement of magma caused cracks in the ground and hundreds of earthquakes, which could allow it to burst through to the surface in a fresh eruption, the Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG) said.

The frequency and intensity of the ground tremors had lessened in the last 24 hours, suggesting the risk of a fresh eruption was subsiding, Celestin Kasareka Mahinda of the OVG said on Friday.

“I don’t think we will have a second eruption. The problem is the risk of fractures, but the risk is small, around 20%,” he told Reuters.

Some people who had fled to Sake crowded into trucks later on Friday to return to Goma. Dozens of people who had fled in the opposite direction to neighboring Rwanda also crossed back into Congo, photos shared by the Rwandan government showed.

Congolese authorities, meanwhile, reopened the main road which was split in two by lava, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Thursday.

Goma is major humanitarian hub supplying aid to a region hit by decades of unrest.

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty, Aaron Ross and Hereward Holland; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Aaron Ross and Andrew Heavens)

Exodus to jungles, villages as Myanmar troops retake town

(Reuters) – Thousands of residents of a hill town in northwest Myanmar were hiding in jungles, villages and valleys on Monday after fleeing an assault by state troops, witnesses said, as the army advanced into the town after days battling local militias.

Mindat, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Indian border in Chin state, has seen some of the most intense fighting since a Feb. 1 coup that has led to the emergence of ragtag local armies that are stifling the junta’s bid to consolidate power.

Martial law was declared in Mindat on Thursday before the army launched its assault, using artillery and helicopters against a newly formed Chinland Defense Force, a militia armed mainly with hunting rifles, which said it had pulled back to spare civilians from being caught in the crossfire.

Several residents reached by Reuters said food was in short supply and estimated as many as 5,000 to 8,000 people had fled the town, with roads blocked and the presence of troops in the streets preventing their return.

“Almost everyone left the city,” said a volunteer fighter who said she was in a jungle. “Most of them are in hiding.”

A representative of the local people’s administrative group of Mindat said he was among some 200 people, including women and children, who had trekked across rocky roads and hills carrying blankets, rice and cooking pots.

He said the group was attacked with heavy weapons when troops spotted smoke from their cooking fires.

“We have to move from one place to another. We cannot settle in a place in the jungle,” he told Reuters by phone.

“Some men were arrested as they went into town to get more food for us. We cannot get into town currently. We are going to starve in few days.”

The Chinland Defense Forces in a statement on Monday said it had killed five government troops in Hakha, another town in Chin State.

The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF in a tweet urged security forces to ensure safety of children in Mindat, the latest international call for restraint after human rights groups, the United States and Britain condemned the use of war weapons against civilians.

MULTIPLE FRONTS

The United States, Britain and Canada on Monday announced more sanctions against businesses and individuals tied to the junta. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged more countries to follow suit.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with the military battling armed and peaceful resistance on multiple fronts, adding to concerns about economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis from old conflicts reigniting in border regions.

The fighters in Chin State say they are part of the People’s Defense Forces of the shadow government, which has called on the international community for help.

In an effort to coordinate the anti-junta forces, the shadow government on Monday issued a list of instructions to all the civilian armies, which it said must operate under its command and control.

Aid groups in direct contact with residents of Mindat made urgent calls on social media on Monday for donations or food, clothing and medicine.

Salai, 24, who has been organizing an emergency response, said she had spoken to people hiding in a valley and on farmland who had fled the advance of soldiers.

“They looted people’s property. They burned down people’s houses. It is really upsetting,” said Salai.

“Some in the town were injured by gunshots, including a young girl. She cannot get medical treatment.”

A military spokesman did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said security forces returned fire after coming under attack from insurgents in Mindat, who fled, and that government troops had been attacked elsewhere in Chin State.

So far, 790 people have been killed in the junta’s crackdown on its opponents, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The military disputes that figure. Reuters cannot independently verify arrests and casualty numbers.

The military says it intervened after its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were ignored.

An international monitoring group on Monday said the results of that election “were, by and large, representative of the will of the people of Myanmar”.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. goods trade deficit hits record high in March

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. trade deficit in goods jumped to a record high in March, suggesting trade was a drag on economic growth in the first quarter, but that was likely offset by robust domestic demand amid massive government aid and easing pandemic stress.

Economic activity in the United States has rebounded more quickly compared to its global rivals. The pent-up demand is drawing in imports, eclipsing a recovery in exports and keeping the overall trade deficit elevated. The report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday also showed inventories at retailers fell sharply in March, underscoring the strong domestic demand.

“The widening in the goods deficit suggests that trade will be a drag on first-quarter GDP,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “This won’t be a big issue, as other parts of the economy are still doing well, such as business investment in equipment and consumer spending.”

The goods trade deficit surged 4.0% to $90.6 billion last month, the highest in the history of the series. Exports of goods accelerated 8.7% to $142.0 billion. They were boosted by shipments of motor vehicles, industrial supplies, consumer and capital goods, and food.

The jump in exports was offset by a 6.8% advance in imports to $232.6 billion. Imports rose across the board. There were large gains in imports of motor vehicles, industrial supplies, consumer goods and food. Capital goods imports also rose solidly.

“The goods deficit will start to shrink by the end of 2021 and into 2022,” said Bill Adams, senior economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “As the pandemic comes under control in the United States, American consumers will spend less on imported goods, shrinking imports, and foreigners will buy more U.S. exports as their economies recover further.”

Stocks on Wall Street were mixed. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mixed.

The report was published ahead of Thursday’s advance first-quarter gross domestic product data, which is expected to show the economy grew at a robust 6.1% annualized rate in the first three months of the year after expanding at a 4.3% pace in the fourth quarter, according to a Reuters survey of economists.

That would be the second-fastest growth pace since the third quarter of 2003. Strong consumer spending and business investment as well as the housing market are expected to boost growth.

The rise in COVID-19 vaccinations and the White House’s $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package have allowed for greater economic re-engagement, boosting consumer spending, hiring and business spending on equipment.

Some of the goods imported in March ended up in warehouses at wholesalers, which could blunt the drag on GDP growth from trade. The Commerce Department reported wholesale inventories shot up 1.4% last month after rising 0.9% in February.

But stocks at retailers tumbled 1.4% after gaining 0.1% in February. Retail inventories excluding autos, which go into the calculation of GDP, rose 0.6% after advancing 1.4% in February.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Nearly a million going hungry in conflict-hit Mozambique, U.N. says

GENEVA (Reuters) -Almost one million people face severe hunger in northern Mozambique, where hundreds of thousands have fled Islamist militant attacks, the United Nations food agency said on Tuesday.

Islamic State-linked insurgents last month attacked Palma, a town in Cabo Delgado province next to gas projects under development by companies including Total and Exxon.

The World Food Program (WFP) said in a briefing in Geneva that 950,000 people are now hungry in Mozambique. It appealed to donors for $82 million to confront the crisis.

“Families and individuals have had to abandon their belongings and livelihoods and flee for safety…adding to an already desperate situation in Northern Mozambique,” WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri said.

The U.N. Children Fund’s director of emergencies, Manuel Fontaine, told the same briefing: “We are facing both a large and likely long-lasting humanitarian situation.”

The population in some towns had doubled or even tripled as displaced people arrived, he said.

About 690,000 people were already displaced across the country by February. A further 16,500 have since been registered in other areas of Cabo Delgado after fleeing the attack in Palma, the International Organization for Migration said.

Tens of thousands more are still displaced within Palma district or are on the move, the U.N. humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, said on Monday

Many fled to a nearby village called Quitunda, built by French energy giant Total to house those displaced by its $20 billion gas project.

People there have little access to food, no protection and gather in their hundreds at Total’s site every day desperate for evacuation, a witness told Reuters. Total pulled its staff from the site due to nearby insurgent activity on April 2.

Total has also suspended operations in the provincial capital of Pemba, a source told Reuters. Total did not immediately provide a comment.

Mozambique’s Centre for Public Integrity said the government had failed to manage the crisis, relying mostly on aid agencies to provide support for those fleeing the violence. Many stayed in war zones as they had no means to reach safer areas, it said.

Authorities are still working to identify 12 beheaded bodies found in Palma after the attack, which both police and army officials said were believed to be foreigners.

Mozambique’s population is mostly Christian. Cabo Delgado is one of only a few provinces that have a Muslim majority.

The country remains one of Africa’s poorest and underdeveloped despite its natural resources, and the Islamist insurgency is a rapidly growing threat after a few years of relative peace following a succession of wars.

($1 = 55.5 meticais)

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson in Geneva and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Additional reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo, Catarina Demony in Lison and Geert De Clercq in Paris; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay, Joe Bavier and Angus MacSwan)

Rescuers hunt for survivors after cyclone kills 119 in Indonesia

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Rescuers searched for dozens missing in the remote islands of southeast Indonesia on Tuesday, as reinforcements arrived to help in the aftermath of a tropical cyclone that killed at least 119 people.

Helicopters were deployed to aid the search, and ships carrying food, water, blankets and medicine reached ports previously blocked by high waves whipped up by tropical cyclone Seroja, which brought heavy rain and triggered deadly floods and landslides on Sunday.

Indonesia’s disaster agency BNPB revised upwards the death toll from the cyclone in the East Nusa Tenggara islands, after earlier saying 86 had died. Seventy-six people were still missing.

“The rescue team is moving on the ground. The weather is good,” BNPB spokesman Raditya Jati told a news briefing.

Search and rescue personnel, however, had trouble transporting heavy equipment for use in the search.

“Search for victims is constrained, the existing heavy equipment cannot be sent to their destination, especially in Adonara and Alor,” the head of BNPB, Doni Monardo, said.

The Adonara and Alor islands were among the islands worst hit by the cyclone, with 62 and 21 people dead respectively.

Aerial images from Adonara on Tuesday showed brown mud and flood water covering a vast area, burying houses, roads and trees.

The military and volunteers arrived on the islands on Tuesday and were setting up public kitchens, while medical workers were brought in.

Video taken by a local official in Tanjung Batu village on Lembata, home to the Ile Lewotolok volcano, showed felled trees and large rocks of cold lava that had crushed homes after being dislodged by the cyclone.

Thousands of people have been displaced, nearly 2,000 buildings including a hospital were impacted, and more than 100 homes heavily damaged by the cyclone.

Two people died in nearby West Nusa Tenggara province.

There were also concerns about possible COVID-19 infections in crowded evacuation centers.

In neighboring East Timor, at least 33 were killed in floods and landslides and by falling trees. Civil defense authorities were using heavy equipment to search for survivors.

“The number of victims could still increase because many victims have not been found,” the main director of civil protection, Ismael da Costa Babo, told Reuters.

“They were buried by landslides and carried away by floods.”

Some residents of Lembata island may have also been washed away by mud into the sea.

A volcano that erupted on Lembata last month wiped out vegetation atop the mountain, which allowed hardened lava to slide towards 300 houses when the cyclone struck, a senior district official said, hoping help was on the way.

“We were only able to search on the seashore, not in the deeper area, because of lack of equipment yesterday,” Thomas Ola Langoday told Reuters by phone.

He feared many bodies were still buried under large rocks.

President Joko Widodo urged his cabinet to speed up evacuation and relief efforts and to restore power.

Weather agency head Dwikorita Karnawati said once-rare tropical cyclones were happening more often in Indonesia and climate change could be to blame.

“Seroja is the first time we’re seeing tremendous impact because it hit the land. It’s not common,” she said.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Stanley Widianto and Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta and Nelson Da Cruz in Dili; Writing by Gayatri Suroyo and Fathin Ungku; Editing by Martin Petty, Tom Hogue and Bernadette Baum)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

Australian floods kill two, more evacuations as clean-up begins

By Renju Jose and Jonathan Barrett

SYDNEY (Reuters) -The bodies of two men were found in Australia on Wednesday in cars trapped in floodwaters, the first deaths linked to wild weather in recent days that has submerged houses, swept away livestock and cut off entire towns.

More than 40,000 people have been forced to flee their homes as torrential rain sparked dangerous flash floods, and authorities issued new evacuation orders for residents of Sydney’s western regions to move to safety.

In some other areas, a massive clean-up operation began as sunny skies returned for the first time in days, and food and other emergency supplies were flown in over swamped roads.

Authorities were trying to contact the family of a Pakistani national whose body was found by emergency services in a car under six meters of water in Sydney’s northwest.

Police had determined the man was driving a brand new car, on the first day of a new job and unfamiliar with the rural area, New South Wales Police Detective Inspector Chris Laird told media. The reason he could not get out of the vehicle was being investigated.

“It could very well be that the electrics totally failed and he was simply unable to escape from the car which is an absolute tragedy,” Laird said.

Media reported police found a second body in an upturned utility vehicle in floodwaters in Queensland state.

Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales, the worst-hit state, warned that water levels would keep rising in some areas as major dams overflowed and rivers bulged, with thousands of people were on evacuation watch.

“Catchments will continue to experience flows of water not seen in 50 years and in some places 100 years,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The Insurance Council of Australia, the main industry body, said about 17,000 damages claims worth about A$254.2 million ($193.32 million) had been lodged by Wednesday morning across New South Wales and Queensland.

Homes have been submerged, livestock swept away and crops inundated.

There have also been many animal rescues, with craft used to move dogs, cattle, and even an emu, away from the flood waters. In the country’s arid center, water cascaded down the Uluru rock formation, a rare phenomenon described by the national park as “unique and extraordinary”.

RECOVERY BEGINS

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said heavy-load helicopters would transport food to supermarkets where supplies were running short.

“The expanse of water that went right across that region was quite devastating to see,” Morrison said in parliament after he toured flood-affected areas by helicopter.

Several hundred defense force personnel would be sent to flood-affected areas over the next few days to help in the recovery, said Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud.

“Their job will be out there cleaning up, making sure that we get rid of the debris, having boots on the ground,” Littleproud said.

Australian Rail Track Corp (ARTC) partially reopened Hunter Valley coal rail lines to Newcastle, the world’s biggest coal export port, but not before supply concerns lifted thermal coal prices to two year highs near $100 a tonne.

The Hunter Valley rail network serves mines run by BHP Group, Glencore Plc, New Hope Corp, Whitehaven Coal and Yancoal Australia, among others.

The Port of Newcastle, which last year shipped 158 million tonnes of coal, slowed ship movements this week but said on Wednesday it was continuing to operate.

Forecasters said the weather system that brought the rain would shift to the island state of Tasmania on Wednesday, bringing downpours and flooding.

(Reporting by Renju Jose, Jonathan Barrett, Melanie Burton and Sonali Paul; editing by Grant McCool and Jane Wardell)

Anxious Americans to pay debt, taxes with COVID-19 stimulus checks

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) – Michael Johnson, a construction worker in Washington, D.C., is waiting for the $1,400 check from the government promised after U.S. President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill last week.

He’s not planning a spending spree. He’s nervous. “I’ll try and get ahead on my mortgage a little bit. You know, we are still in this pandemic,” Johnson, 45, said.

Almost 900 miles away in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Aric Nowicki runs a heating and air conditioning business that takes in about $150,000 annually but has expenses of about $100,000. He has clients who are late on their bills, and he plans to use his money to pay his own overdue bills.

“I’m very apprehensive,” Nowicki said. “I’m not sure the vaccines will bring us back to normality. Too many people say they don’t want to take it, and there are these mutations.”

In interviews with a dozen Americans, including a nurse, a man made homeless by the pandemic, a plumber, a teacher, and a bar owner, nearly all say they are so worried about the future that they will use their stimulus checks to pay debt and taxes accumulated in the past year.

Those spending priorities are not what massive stimulus bills are traditionally meant to achieve. They are designed to encourage people to buy goods and services, to help U.S. businesses and create jobs.

Labor economist Diane Swonk sees a divide between those who can work from home and those who cannot – highlighted by the ways Americans have spent their stimulus checks from the government during the year-long coronavirus pandemic.

Consumer spending on goods was quite robust in January, Swonk said. But that was mostly by people who did not necessarily need the three checks sent out by the U.S. Treasury in the past year. Most who desperately needed the money have used it for food, shelter, and to pay debt. “This gets to the issue that a rising tide does not lift all boats,” Swonk said.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked on Monday how Biden expected people to spend their stimulus checks.

“They will use it for different means,” Psaki said. “Some Americans will use it to ensure they can put food on the table, that’s a form of stimulus. Some will use it to ensure that they can pay their rent. That’s a form of stimulus. It’s up to family to family.”

Reverend Lee May, the pastor of Transforming Faith Church, an ecumenical Christian church in suburban Atlanta, said members of his congregation “really need this boost.”

“This is intended to help and we feel blessed to have it sent our way, but it isn’t enough to make us whole,” May said. “We know there are prohibitions on evictions and shut offs of utilities for now, but those rent and light bills don’t go away.”

“More needs to be done,” he said.

Reginald Smith, 36, a cook who was laid off in the crisis as many restaurants closed, was waiting in line at the food pantry outside the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta on Monday.

He lost his place to stay and he has been “couch surfing” at the homes of friends.

“I need a job and hope to get one once this all opens back up,” he said. “But first I need my own place to stay. I’m hoping that this (the stimulus check) will help me make a deposit, get a place and get back on my feet. I wish it was more though. I don’t know if this is enough to dig me out.”

Others are more optimistic. Steve Pitts, the general manager of Manuel’s Tavern in Midtown Atlanta, hopes the stimulus checks will give people more cash to go out.

“We’re hoping it loosens things up a bit,” Pitts said. “To say it’s been a tough year isn’t the half of it. We all need a break. We’ve had to let people go and it hurt. This, of course, isn’t the cure. We’re all waiting for this crisis to be over, but maybe this is a little light, a little bump.”

Thadd Ernstmeyer, who runs a family plumbing business in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, grosses about $150,000 a year, with overheads about one third of that, and is taxed roughly 25%. His stimulus check would go toward his tax bill, Ernstmeyer said.

“It’s going straight back to the government.”

(Reporting by Tim Reid in Washington and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Donna Bryson and Grant McCool)