Georgia governor to sign heartbeat abortion ban, joining a U.S. movement

FILE PHOTO: Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – Georgia’s Republican governor on Tuesday is expected to sign a bill outlawing abortion if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, part of a concerted effort to restrict abortion rights in states across the country.

Governor Brian Kemp praised the bill when it passed the state legislature in March and has scheduled a signing ceremony at 10 a.m. ET (1400 GMT), which would make him the fourth governor to sign such a law since mid-March.

Anti-abortion campaigners have intensified their efforts since Donald Trump was elected president and appointed two conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, hopeful they can convince the right-leaning court to re-examine the landmark case Roe v. Wade that established a woman’s right to an abortion in 1973.

Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have passed heartbeat laws recently, and Iowa passed one last year. Courts have blocked the Iowa and Kentucky laws, and the others face legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has vowed to sue to stop this law.

Even so, anti-abortion advocates have seized the political and judicial opening in their favor, introducing measures in 15 states to ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, according to Rewire.News, a site specializing in the issue.

That has raised concerns among abortion-rights advocates about expanding “abortion deserts,” described as major cities that are at least 100 miles (160 km) from an abortion provider.

Between Georgia and Mississippi is Alabama, where the House has passed a bill that would ban all abortions unless the mother’s life was threatened and the Senate is likely to vote on it this week, raising the prospect of a giant abortion desert in the Southeast.

Ushma Upadhyay, professor of reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco, said she was concerned for low-income women who lack the means to travel.

“This is basic health that should be available to all women regardless of where they live, how much money they make or how many children they have,” Upadhyay said.

Abortion-rights supporters see the heartbeat bills as virtual bans because fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks, when women may not be aware they are pregnant.

Georgia’s Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act would permit later abortions in medical emergencies. In cases of rape or incest, the woman would be required to file an official police report.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Some 156 people in 10 states infected with E. coli from ground beef: CDC

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A total of 156 people in 10 states have been infected with E. coli after eating tainted ground beef at home and in restaurants since the beginning of March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

No deaths have been reported but 20 people have been hospitalized after they were infected with the strain E. coli O103 since March 1, the CDC said on its website.

The agency said an investigation is ongoing to determine the source of the contaminated ground beef that was supplied to grocery stores and restaurants.

“At this time, no common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef has been identified,” the CDC said.

The investigation began on March 28, when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified the CDC of the outbreak. Since then, some 65 cases have been reported in Kentucky, 41 in Tennessee and another 33 in Georgia.

E. coli cases have also been reported in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia.

The CDC said that illnesses after March 26 may not have been reported yet because the lead time is two to three weeks.

People infected with the bacteria get sick two to eight days after swallowing the germ, and may sometimes develop a type of kidney failure.

Many of the infected people had bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti sauce and Sloppy Joes, the agency said.

The regulator said it is not recommending that consumers avoid eating ground beef at this time, but said that consumers and restaurants should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illnesses.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Matthew Lewis)

More U.S. states push ahead with near-bans on abortion for Supreme Court challenge

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation on Wednesday making it a crime for doctors to perform a second-trimester abortion using instruments like forceps and clamps to remove the fetus from the womb.

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

The move came the same day that Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans – outlawing the procedure if a doctor can detect a heartbeat. The bill now goes to Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who is expected to sign it.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature in March also passed a ban on abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Activists on both sides of the issue say such laws, which are commonly blocked by court injunctions, are aimed at getting a case sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 5-4 majority, to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The North Dakota bill, which Burgum’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, confirmed in an email that the governor signed, followed similar laws in Mississippi and West Virginia.

Known as HB 1546, it outlaws the second-trimester abortion practice known in medical terms as dilation and evacuation, but which the legislation refers to as “human dismemberment.”

Under the North Dakota legislation, doctors performing the procedure would be charged with a felony but the woman having the abortion would not face charges.

Similar legislation exists in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, but is on hold because of litigation, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

Abortion-rights groups challenging such bans argue they are unconstitutional as they obstruct private medical rights.

North Dakota has one abortion provider, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo. Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She previously said her clinic would wait for a decision in a case involving similar legislation in Arkansas before deciding on a possible legal challenge to HB 1546.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

CDC investigates E.coli outbreak in several states

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and several other U.S. agencies are investigating an E.coli outbreak in five states, the CDC said on Friday.

The CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and several states are investigating the outbreak of toxin-producing E.coli O103 infections.

Escherichia coli, or E.coli bacteria, normally lives in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Although many strains of the bacteria are harmless, certain strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia are the five states that have reported E.coli infections relating to particular strain of the bacteria.

As many as 72 people from these states have reported infections and eight have been hospitalized as of April 4, 2019, the agency said. No deaths were reported.

The investigation is still going on and the reason for the outbreak is yet to be identified, the agency said.

(Reporting by Aakash Jagadeesh Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by James Emmanuel)

Trump sees ‘unbelievable’ tornado damage in Alabama visit

By Steve Holland

BEAUREGARD, Ala. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday visited communities in eastern Alabama devastated by tornadoes that tore through homes and businesses, killing 23 people.

Trump and his wife Melania Trump took a helicopter tour of the area before going to the homes of some victims in the tiny and especially hard-hit community of Beauregard, near the border with Georgia.

Their motorcade passed trees knocked down like kindling and homes scattered in pieces.

“This is unbelievable,” Trump said as he and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey surveyed the devastation. He said he had seen “unbelievable” destruction from the air, too.

Relatives of one victim, Marshall Lynn Grimes, showed the president the 59-year-old’s cherished motorcycle vest and Bible. Trump hugged members of the family.

The president and Melania Trump then visited a disaster relief center at the Providence Baptist Church in Opelika, the county seat, to meet with survivors, volunteers, and first responders.

Tables at the church were piled high with donated clothes, toiletries and other items. Twenty-three crosses, one for each of those killed, were set up on a lawn outside.

Trump met privately with more victims’ families inside the church. He said he talked with one woman who lost 10 people in the storm.

“I said how did it go, and she said I lost 10,” Trump said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He told dozens of community volunteers gathered in the church auditorium that the first responders were doing an “A-plus job.”

“We’re gonna take care,” Trump said. “We couldn’t get here fast enough … I wanted to come the day it happened.”

Sunday’s tornadoes were the deadliest to hit the state since 2013. All 23 victims, including four children and seven members of one family, were killed in or around Beauregard, in rural Lee County about 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Auburn.

Dozens of people were injured and about 100 houses were destroyed by 170 mile-per-hour (264 km-per-hour) winds, officials said.

Mobile homes were tossed over and ripped open last weekend, their contents strewn across a landscape littered with debris and uprooted trees. In some places, shreds of houses had hung from the limbs of the few trees left standing.

The worst of the twisters, stirred up by a late-winter “supercell” thunderstorm, were ranked by forecasters at step four of the six-step Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado strength.

It was the greatest loss of life from a tornado since an EF-5 storm ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013, killing 24 people and injuring 375 others.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Nick Zieminski)

Trump sees Michael’s wrath, rescuers search for bodies

U.S. President Donald Trump visits a street in the the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, as he tours areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida and Georgia, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump got a first-hand look on Monday at the “total devastation” that Hurricane Michael brought to Florida, as rescuers searched for scores of missing and hundreds of thousands of residents remained without electricity.

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) help distribute water in the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, during a tour of areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) help distribute water in the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, during a tour of areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump and first lady Melania Trump passed out bottles of water at an aid center in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City in northwestern Florida, after taking a helicopter flight from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.

“To see this personally is very tough – total devastation,” said Trump, who later traveled to neighboring Georgia to see storm damage there.

At least 18 deaths in four states have been blamed on Michael, which crashed into the Panhandle last Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States.

Thousands of rescuers, including volunteers, are still combing remote areas of the Florida Panhandle for those reported missing. They include 46 in Mexico Beach, according to ABC News. The town took a direct hit from the hurricane, and at least one person died there.

With most Mexico Beach homes already searched for survivors, rescue workers began using cadaver dogs to try to recover any human remains that might be buried under debris.

“The next phase is recovery,” Ignatius Carroll, a Miami fire captain who leads a Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue team, said by phone as he combed through wreckage. “We start using the dogs for larger rubble piles that were created by the storm.”

Searchers went through debris by hand, rather than with machines, so as not to destroy any bodies, Mexico Beach Councillor Linda Albrecht said.

“We expect to find everybody, because that’s our mentality. We expect everything to work out, but who knows what’s down the road?” said Albrecht, who returned to her home on Sunday to find it destroyed.

About 200,000 people remained without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents cooking with fires and barbecue grills during daylight in hard-hit coastal towns such as Port St. Joe, Florida.

BILLIONS IN INSURED LOSSES

Insured losses for wind and storm surge from Hurricane Michael will run between an estimated $6 billion and $10 billion, risk modeler AIR Worldwide said. Those figures do not include losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program or uninsured property, AIR Worldwide said.

With top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 kph), Michael hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by roads choked with downed trees after coastal woodlands and forests were uprooted by the storm.

Water service was restored to some in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink. Homeowners were advised to keep toilet flushes to a minimum because the sewer system was operating only at half capacity.

U.S. President Donald Trump riding aboard Marine One tours storm damage from Hurricane Michael along the Gulf Coast of Florida, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Donald Trump riding aboard Marine One tours storm damage from Hurricane Michael along the Gulf Coast of Florida, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that while power was returning in most areas, at least 85 percent of customers in four mainly rural Panhandle counties were without electricity on Monday. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to the most-damaged areas.

“We’re living in the daylight, and living in the dark once night gets here,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Bo Patterson, whose town of 3,500 was without power.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Makini Brice and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Hurricane Michael’s death toll could rise as Florida searches intensify

First responders and residents walk along a main street following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Devika Krishna Kumar

PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (Reuters) – Rescuers used heavy equipment to clear debris in the Florida Panhandle towns hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, searching for survivors amid expectations the death toll of 12 from the powerful storm likely will climb.

Rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used dogs, drones and global positioning satellites in the search.

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

So far, no counties along the devastated northwest Florida coast have reported deaths related to the storm. That could change, as efforts to assess damage and look for casualties in the worst-hit communities have been hampered by downed utility lines and roads blocked by debris and fallen trees.

“I think you’re going to see it climb,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said of the death count at a news conference. “We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas.”

Michael charged ashore on Wednesday near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland and caused widespread flooding.

Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were reduced to naked concrete foundations or piles of debris.

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida's northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O'Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O’Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Although weaker as it pushed over the southeastern United States, the storm carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It killed at least 12 people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

In Virginia, the remnants of the hurricane swept away four people in floodwaters. A firefighter also was killed when hit by a truck as he was trying to help an accident victim, the Washington Post reported.

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.

It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida, such as Panama City.

Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.

“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”

By early Friday morning the remnants of Michael had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

HOSPITAL PROBLEMS

The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore apart entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle.

Many of the injured in Florida were taken to Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach.

Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center treated some people but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it was dealing with its own hurricane effects.

The hospital was running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows, according to a spokesman for the hospital’s owner, HCA Healthcare Inc.

Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 12 miles (19 km) east of Mexico Beach, was flooded by Michael, which snapped boats in two and hurled a large ship onto the shore, residents said.

“We had houses that were on one side of the street and now they’re on the other,” said Mayor Bo Patterson, estimating that 1,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed in his town of 3,500 people.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 129 people.

Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan, and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares), said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

It was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Fla.; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Fla., Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Hurricane Michael tears Florida towns apart, 6 dead

An American flag flies amongst rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Devika Krishna Kumar

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Michael’s violence was visible on Thursday in shattered Florida coastal towns, where rows of homes were ripped from foundations and roofs were peeled off schools by the near-record-force storm blamed for six deaths.

Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast near the small town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday with screeching 155 mile per hour (250 kilometer per hour) winds, pushing a wall of seawater inland.

“The wind was really tearing us apart. It was so scary you’d poo yourself,” said retiree Tom Garcia, 60, who was trapped inside his Mexico Beach home as water poured in to waist height.

He and his partner Cheri Papineau, 50, pushed on their door for an hour in an effort to stop the storm surge bursting in as their four dogs sat on top of a bed floating through their home.

Video shot by CNN from a helicopter showed homes closest to the water in Mexico Beach had lost all but their foundations. A few blocks inland, about half the homes were reduced to piles of wood and siding and those still standing had suffered heavy damage.

Michael, the third most powerful hurricane ever to hit the U.S. mainland, weakened overnight to a tropical storm and pushed northeast on Thursday, bringing drenching rains to Georgia and the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Michael killed at least six people in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina from falling trees and other hurricane-related incidents, officials and local media said.

The injured in Florida were taken to hospitals in Tallahassee, with some hurt after the storm by breaking tree limbs and falls, said Allison Castillo, director of emergency services at the city’s Capital Regional Medical Center.

Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called Mexico Beach, which has a population of about 1,200, “ground zero” for the hurricane damage.

In Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach, buildings were crushed and boats were scattered around. Michael left a trail of utility wires on roads, flattened tall pine trees and knocked a steeple from a church.

Al Hancock, 45, who works on a tour boat, survived in Panama City with his wife and dog.

“The roof fell in but we lived through it,” he said.

Nearly 950,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas and Georgia on Thursday.

DAMAGE ‘WAY WORSE’ THAN EXPECTED

Florida Governor Rick Scott told the Weather Channel the damage from Panama City down to Mexico Beach was “way worse than anybody ever anticipated.”

At Jinks Middle School in Panama City, the storm tore off part of the gym roof and one wall, leaving the wooden floor covered in water. A year ago the school welcomed students and families displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Rubble left in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is pictured in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

“The kids live nearby. The second floor of some apartments are just gone. Roofs are gone,” Principal Britt Smith told CNN after talking by phone with some of those who did not evacuate.

Michael, a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale when it came ashore, was causing flash flooding on Thursday in parts of North Carolina and Virginia, where some areas could get as much as 9 inches (23 cm) of rain, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

By 2 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT), the storm had pushed northeast to within 25 miles (40 km) of Greensboro, North Carolina, carrying 50-mph (85-kph) winds, the NHC said.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.

‘ROOF-HIGH’ FLOODING

Michael pummeled communities across the Panhandle and turned streets into roof-high waterways.

Twenty miles (32 km) south of Mexico Beach, floodwaters were more than 7 feet (2.1 meters) deep near Apalachicola, a town of about 2,300 residents, hurricane center chief Ken Graham said. Wind damage was also evident.

“Our biggest thing is the downed lines and the downed trees and now this water main issue,” said Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, referring to a burst water main complicating efforts to restore power.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said Michael had severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan and peanuts, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares).

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly one-third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

With a low barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, a measure of a hurricane’s force, Michael was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Florida; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee, Florida; Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York; Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry and Bill Berkrot)

Former Hurricane Michael heads northeast after trashing Florida

Waves crash on stilt houses along the shore due to Hurricane Michael at Alligator Point in Franklin County, Florida, U.S., October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

By Rod Nickel

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Michael took its drenching rains to Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday after battering Florida’s Panhandle as the third most powerful hurricane ever to strike the U.S. mainland and killing at least two people.

Michael shattered houses and buildings, downed power lines and ripped up trees when it crashed ashore on Wednesday afternoon, carrying winds of up to 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour) and causing deep seawater flooding.

Emergency crews work to clear a street of debris during Hurricane Michael in Panama City Beach, Florida, U.S. October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Emergency crews work to clear a street of debris during Hurricane Michael in Panama City Beach, Florida, U.S. October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Residents and officials were taking stock of the damage on Thursday.

“I think everything from Panama City down to Mexico Beach is way worse than anybody ever anticipated,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told the Weather Channel. Michael’s eye came ashore near Mexico Beach, about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Panama City.

“This is going to be a long recovery but Florida is resilient, we help each other, and we survive,” Scott said. “We worked all night in endangered circumstances.”

It was not yet known what had happened to about 280 residents of Mexico Beach who authorities said had ignored evacuation orders as the storm approached the state’s northwest. The area is known for its small beach towns, wildlife reserves and the state capital, Tallahassee.

Michael was a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale, just shy of a rare Category 5, when it came ashore. It weakened steadily as it traveled inland over the Panhandle.

By 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) Thursday it had been downgraded to a tropical storm with 50-mph (85-kph) winds as it pushed through Georgia into the Carolinas, the National Hurricane Center said.

Parts of North Carolina and Virginia could get as much as 9 inches (23 cm) of rain and life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The Carolinas are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

The two people killed in the storm were a man who died when a tree toppled onto his house in Florida and a girl who died when debris fell into a home in Georgia, officials and local media said.

More than 830,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama and Georgia early Thursday.

A McDonald's sign damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Panama City Beach, Florida, U.S. October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

A McDonald’s sign damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Panama City Beach, Florida, U.S. October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

‘SURREAL’ WIND

The hurricane, the fiercest to hit Florida in 80 years, pummeled communities across the Panhandle and turned streets into roof-high waterways.

“The wind that came through here was surreal. It destroyed everything,” Jason Gunderson, a member of a group of rescue workers that calls itself the Cajun Navy, told CNN early on Thursday from Callaway, a suburb of Panama City.

“It’s unlivable. It’s heartbreaking.”

Thousands of people hunkered down in shelters overnight after fleeing their homes ahead of the storm.

An estimated 6,000 people evacuated to emergency shelters, mostly in Florida, and that number was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by week’s end, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.

Twenty miles (32 km) south of Mexico Beach, floodwaters were more than 7 feet (2.1 meters) deep near Apalachicola, a town of about 2,300 residents, hurricane center chief Ken Graham said. Wind damage was also evident.

“There are so many downed power lines and trees that it’s almost impossible to get through the city,” Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson said.

Michael had rapidly intensified as it churned north over the Gulf of Mexico in recent days, growing from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane in about 40 hours and catching many by surprise.

With a low barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, the measure of a hurricane’s force, it ranked as the third strongest storm on record to make landfall in the continental United States. Only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the so-called Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys were more intense.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for all of Florida, freeing federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster responses.

About 3,500 Florida National Guard troops were deployed, along with more than 1,000 search-and-rescue personnel, Governor Scott said.

Even before landfall, the hurricane disrupted energy operations in the Gulf, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly one-third as offshore platforms were evacuated before the storm hit.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Florida; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee, Florida; Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Writing by Steve Gorman and Bill Trott; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry)

U.S. judge will not force Georgia to use paper ballots despite concerns

FILE PHOTO: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks with visitors to the state capitol about the "SEC primary" involving a group of southern states voting next month in Atlanta, Georgia February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Letitia Stein/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A federal judge will not force Georgia to use paper ballots for the November election, citing the potential for last-minute confusion, but expressed concern that the state’s electronic machines could be vulnerable to hacking.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg said in a ruling late on Monday that while it is important for citizens to know their ballots are properly counted, voters also must rely on a smooth process, especially in a fast-approaching election race.

“Ultimately, any chaos or problems that arise in connection with a sudden rollout of a paper ballot system with accompanying scanning equipment may swamp the polls with work and voters – and result in voter frustration and disaffection from the voting process,” Totenberg said in a 46-page decision.

The state’s November contests include a gubernatorial race that is among the most high-profile in the country. Democrat Stacey Abrams faces Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is responsible for the state’s elections and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

If elected, Abrams would be the first black female governor in the United States.

Georgia is one of five states that use touchscreen machines with no paper record.

Voting rights groups and individual voters sued Georgia officials in 2017, alleging that the electronic machines are highly vulnerable to hacking and cannot be audited or verified. The judge’s decision to reject their request to require paper ballots in November does not affect the underlying lawsuit, which will continue.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, David Cross, said that while they were disappointed the judge had not imposed paper ballots for November, her decision was nevertheless a victory because she agreed the current election system is “woefully inadequate and insecure.”

Georgia has used direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines exclusively since 2002. The machines have drawn criticism from various advocacy groups and federal agencies, including U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials who called the systems a “national security concern” in March, according to Totenberg.

“Plaintiffs shine a spotlight on the serious security flaws and vulnerabilities in the state’s DRE system,” Totenberg said in the court order.

A representative from Kemp’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Kemp on Monday said that Georgia’s electronic voting machines are secure and that switching to paper ballots would cause “chaos,” according to the Atlantic Journal-Constitution newspaper.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Joseph Ax and Susan Thomas)