Thaw on the way in southern United States

National Weather Service High and Low Temperature Map 1-19-18

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Commuters in the southern United States will wake up to more frigid temperatures and slick roads Friday, but a thaw is expected by the weekend, forecasters say.

Many schools in Atlanta, northeastern Georgia and western North Carolina remained closed Friday after a mid-week storm dumped snow across the region, whipped up winds that snapped power lines and led to at least a dozen deaths.

Sub-freezing temperatures overnight left many roads with ice that is difficult for drivers to detect, but that’s expected to melt soon, said Laura Belanger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Atlanta.

“We’re looking at a warm-up for the southeast and mid-Atlantic with daytime temperatures up in the 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit) and hitting the low 60s in some areas by Saturday,” Belanger said.

Areas as far north as Boston will inch up to the low 40s (Fahrenheit) but dip below freezing at night, she said adding, “This is still winter.”

Through the early morning hours, NWS freeze warnings remained in effect over much of the Deep South as far as Tampa, Florida.

The winter storm sent blasts of cold air as far south as Mississippi, Lousiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

In Houston, 22-year-old Cynthia Chavez said she walked on ice for the first time in her life on Wednesday, and fell on her second step.

“I was, like, coming out of our house and there was a little step and what I thought was water,” Chavez said by phone from Olde Towne Kolaches in Houston where she is a cashier. “Two steps and I was on my butt. At first, I was nervous but then I was like, ah, THIS is ice.”

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

In Virginia on Thursday, a six-year-old boy on a sled slid onto a road and was struck and killed by a car, CBS affiliate WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, reported.

On Thursday in North Carolina’s Washington County, a 26-year-old man was killed when his vehicle went off a snowy road and overturned in a canal, officials said.

In Oklahoma, two people died on Wednesday in a fire apparently caused by the use of electrical space heaters, media reported.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Larry King)

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)

Flights canceled, schools closed across snowy U.S. South

Snow falls through a picture frame in the Boston Public Garden during a winter storm in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., January 17, 2018.

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A bitter winter storm gripped much of the South on Wednesday, prompting schools to close and causing thousands of flight delays and cancellations as snow, ice and record-breaking cold hit the region.

The storm led to a least one death when a vehicle in Austin, Texas, plunged more than 30 feet off a frozen overpass late on Tuesday, killing a man in his 40s, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service said on its Twitter feed.

Winter weather advisories were in effect from the Northeast to the Mid-Atlantic states and Southeast, as well as over the central Gulf Coast of Texas, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Winter storm warnings were also in effect for portions of the Carolinas, southern Virginia and the New England area.

More than 360 outgoing flights at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were canceled or delayed on Wednesday, according to Flightaware.com, and another 60-plus were canceled or delayed at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana declared states of emergency due to severe winter weather conditions, which caused multiple car accidents during rush-hour traffic, officials said.

NWS meteorologist Dan Petersen said snowfall in central and north Georgia had ended, and the arctic cold front would now bring snow, frigid temperatures and frozen roadways across central North Carolina on Wednesday.

“The rain in central North Carolina will eventually turn into snow later today and is predicted to dump 6 to 8 inches of snow over central North Carolina and about 1 to 3 inches over east North Carolina,” he said.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned at a news briefing that cold temperatures Wednesday night would make travel conditions even more hazardous.

“The snow is pretty, but don’t be fooled,” Cooper said.

In Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, most freeways were closed on Wednesday morning after icing over, the city’s Office of Emergency Management said.

“Not a good idea to be out on the roads. Conditions are still unsafe,” the Texas Department of Transportation Houston Division said on its Twitter feed.

New Orleans had record-breaking cold temperatures Wednesday morning with 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the area, beating its previous record 23 degrees set in 1977, according to the NWS. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, also broke temperature records with 12 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday, beating its 14 degrees also set in 1977.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)

Supreme Court divided over Ohio voter purge policy

Activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of arguments in a key voting rights case involving a challenge to the OhioÕs policy of purging infrequent voters from voter registration rolls, in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018.

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative and liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared at odds on Wednesday in a closely watched voting rights case, differing over whether Ohio’s purging of infrequent voters from its registration rolls — a policy critics say disenfranchises thousands of people — violates federal law.

The nine justices heard about an hour of arguments in Republican-governed Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that found the policy violated a 1993 federal law aimed at making it easier to register to vote.

Conservative justices signaled sympathy to the state’s policy while two liberal justices asked questions indicating skepticism toward it. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.

“The reason for purging is they want to protect voter rolls,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the deciding vote in close decisions. “What we’re talking about is the best tools to implement that purpose.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling, due by the end of June, could affect the ability to vote for thousands of people ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.

States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that erase infrequent voters from registration lists, according to plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.

They called Ohio’s policy the most aggressive. Registered voters in Ohio who do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.

Ohio’s policy would have barred more than 7,500 voters from casting a ballot in the November 2016 election had the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not ruled against the state.

Voting rights has become an important theme before the Supreme Court. In two other cases, the justices are examining whether electoral districts drawn by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Democratic lawmakers in Maryland were fashioned to entrench the majority party in power in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of voters. That practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

The plaintiffs suing Ohio, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that purging has become a powerful tool for voter suppression. They argued that voting should not be considered a “use it or lose it” right.

Dozens of voting rights activists gathered for a rally outside the courthouse before the arguments, with some holding signs displaying slogans such as “Every vote counts” and “You have no right to take away my right to vote.”

“This is about government trying to choose who should get to vote. We know that’s wrong,” U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said at the rally.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.

A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs include Larry Harmon, a software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was blocked from voting in a state marijuana initiative in 2015, and an advocacy group for the homeless. They said Ohio’s policy ran afoul of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from striking registered voters “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

Ohio argued that a 2002 U.S. law called the Help America Vote Act contained language that permitted the state to enforce its purge policy. Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state’s policy has been in place since the 1990s, under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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)

Weakening Nate brings rain, tornado warnings to U.S. South

A man sits on a bench overlooking a beach covered in debris scattered by Hurricane Nate, in Biloxi, Mississippi, U.S.,

By Rod Nickel and Jessica Resnick-Ault

BILOXI/PASCAGOULA, Miss. (Reuters) – Hurricane Nate weakened to a tropical depression on Sunday after coming ashore in Mississippi, flooding roads and buildings but sparing the state from catastrophic damages.

Maximum sustained winds from Nate, the fourth major storm to hit the United States in less than two months, dropped to 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) as it moved through Alabama and into Tennessee.

The remnants of the storm spawned tornado warnings in those states and the western portions of North Carolina and South Carolina. It is forecast to bring gusty winds and up to 4 inches (10 cm) of rain to parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York on Monday.

The storm made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest designation by the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Only a few hours earlier, its winds had been blowing at 70 mph (113 kph) but appeared to lack the devastating punch of its recent predecessors.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant told reporters there had been no deaths or reports of catastrophic damage. “We are very fortunate this morning and have been blessed,” he said.

Nate killed at least 30 people in Central America before entering the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and bearing down on the U.S. South. It has also shut down most oil and gas production in the Gulf.

Nate follows hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which have devastated areas of the Caribbean and southern United States.

The tropical depression’s center will move up through Alabama into Tennessee and Kentucky through Monday, the hurricane center said. Heavy rainfall and storm-surge flooding remained a danger across the region, and the hurricane center said Florida’s Panhandle and parts of Alabama and Georgia might feel tropical storm-force wind gusts.

The storm was expected to bring three to six inches of rain to parts of western North Carolina through midday Monday, with up to 10 inches possible in isolated spots. Power outages, damaged homes and roads closed by debris were all reported in the region.

Nate made its first U.S. landfall on Saturday evening near the mouth of the Mississippi River and then made a second one early on Sunday near Biloxi, Mississippi.

In Biloxi, water surged over roads during the storm and quickly receded on Sunday, leaving a boat that broke loose marooned on the beach. At a Waffle House restaurant, the storm surge deposited a dumpster in its parking lot.

Jeff Pickich, a 46-year-old wine salesman from D’Iberville, Mississippi, was counting his blessings. Heavy winds left only minor damage, blowing down part of a fence on his rental property in Biloxi.

“I’m just glad,” he said, digging fresh holes for fence posts. “I was afraid of the water. The water is Mother Nature. You can’t stop it.”

Water flowed through Ursula Staten’s yard in Biloxi, pushing over part of her fence and scattering debris, but did not breach her house.

“I have a mess,” the retired massage therapist said. “If we had got Irma, I would have lost everything.”

At the Golden Nugget Casino, one of eight Biloxi gaming establishments, workers rushed to clean up mud, debris and minor damage from 3 feet (1 m) of water sloshing into an entrance and the parkade. The gaming room stayed dry.

Three hundred guests remained in the hotel, some eager to try their luck after surviving Nate.

But dangers from the storm remain, with Florida Governor Rick Scott warning of tornadoes springing up in the Panhandle region and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey urging residents to prepare for strong winds and storm surges.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared federal emergencies in Alabama and Florida on Sunday, which provides additional funding for disaster relief.

Mississippi Power had restored electricity to 10,000 customers, but 4,800 were still without it. More than 1,000 people had arrived at shelters, the state Emergency Management Agency said.

Alabama Power said it had restored electricity to 58,000 of 146,000 customers who lost it.

Rainfall of 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm), with a maximum of 10 inches (25 cm), was expected east of the Mississippi River in Alabama and Tennessee, the hurricane center said.

Residents walk down a street covered in debris scattered by Hurricane Nate, in Biloxi, Mississippi, U.S., October 8, 2017.

Residents walk down a street covered in debris scattered by Hurricane Nate, in Biloxi, Mississippi, U.S., October 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

NEW ORLEANS THREAT DOWNGRADED

Forecast at one point to make landfall in Louisiana, Nate headed farther east and spared many New Orleans parishes that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.

“I had prayed for this – that we would be spared,” said Amos Cormier, president of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana’s equivalent to a county.

Bernice Barthelemy, a 70-year-old Louisiana resident, died from cardiac arrest overnight after telling Reuters on Saturday that she did not mind having to evacuate, Cormier said on Sunday. He attributed her death to the stress of the move.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he expected that evacuated residents could return home soon.

Vessel traffic and port operations at New Orleans resumed on Sunday afternoon, while the Port of Mobile in Alabama remained closed. Oil ports, producers and refiners in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were planning reopenings as the storm moved inland on Sunday.

Heavy rain is seen at Orange Beach, Alabama, U.S. as Hurricane Nate approaches, on October 7, 2017 in this still image taken from a video obtained via social media. Jacob Kiper, Owensboro, KY/Social Media via REUTERS

Heavy rain is seen at Orange Beach, Alabama, U.S. as Hurricane Nate approaches, on October 7, 2017 in this still image taken from a video obtained via social media. Jacob Kiper, Owensboro, KY/Social Media via REUTERS

The storm curtailed 92 percent of daily oil production and 77 percent of daily natural gas output in the Gulf of Mexico, more than three times the amount affected by Harvey.

The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 16 people in Nicaragua, 10 in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and two in El Salvador.

 

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Biloxi, Miss. and Jessica Resnick-Ault in Pascagoula, Miss.; Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston; Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)

 

About 1.5 million, mostly in Florida, without power in Irma’s wake

About 1.5 million, mostly in Florida, without power in Irma's wake

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – About 1.5 million homes and businesses in Florida and Georgia remained without power on Friday after Hurricane Irma, including 46 of Florida’s nearly 700 nursing homes caught in the deadly storm’s path.

Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record before striking the U.S. mainland as a Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10, killed at least 84 people. Several hard-hit Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, suffered more than half the fatalities.

Florida Power & Light, owned by NextEra Energy Inc <NEE.N> and the state’s biggest electric company, said it was working aggressively to restore power to the 23 percent of its customers still in the dark.

The utility has never before had to deal with a storm affecting its entire service territory, company spokesman Rob Gould said.

“It will go down as one of the largest and most complex restoration efforts in history,” he said. “Now we are literally into the house-to-house combat mode.”

The storm’s death toll grew to at least 33 people in Florida after a woman died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach Post newspaper reported.

A total of eight others died in Georgia and the Carolinas. North Carolina reported its first Irma death on Friday, saying a man there also had died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator.

Eight elderly people died earlier this week after being exposed to the heat inside a nursing home north of Miami that had been left without full air conditioning after the hurricane hit.

The deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, now under police and state investigation, stirred outrage over what many saw as a preventable tragedy and heightened concerns about the vulnerability of the state’s large elderly population amid widespread, lingering power outages.

“The governor will continue to review all ways to ensure tragedies like this never happen again,” Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Florida Governor Rick Scott, said in a statement.

Florida’s healthcare agency ordered the nursing home on Thursday to be suspended from the state Medicaid program. The center said it plans to the fight the state’s efforts to shut it down.

A timeline of events issued by the nursing home shows administrators repeatedly called Florida Power & Light and state officials after a transformer powering its air conditioning system went out during the storm on Sunday. The center said it was informed that service would soon be fixed.

Nursing home operators had put out cooling units and fans in an effort to maintain reasonable temperatures and added additional cooling units supplied by a hospital next door on Tuesday.

But it was not until multiple patients began experiencing health emergencies, which promoted the evacuation of the center, that the utility company arrived to make the repair, the nursing home said.

However, officials at the Florida Department of Health said the facility did not indicate the extent of its problems nor requested assistance in reports to a state monitoring database. In its status reports, the center indicated that its cooling system was operational for much of the time, according to the state.

(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Detroit, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Scott DiSavino in New York and Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina)

Tropical Storm Irma floods northern Florida cities after hammering south

A partially submerged car is seen at a flooded area in Coconut Grove as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, in Miami, Florida, U.S., September 10, 2017.

By Zachary Fagenson and Daniel Trotta

MIAMI/KISSIMMEE, Fla. (Reuters) – Downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, Irma flooded several northern Florida cities with heavy rain and a high storm surge on Monday as it headed out of the state after cutting power to millions and ripping roofs off homes.

Irma, once ranked as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic, hit a wide swath of Florida over the past day, first making landfall on the Florida Keys archipelago and then coming ashore south of Naples before heading up the west coast.

Now a tropical storm with sustained winds of up to 70 miles per hour (110 km per hour), Irma was located about 35 miles (56 km) west of Gainesville and headed up the Gulf Coast, the National Hurricane Center said at 8 a.m. ET (1200 GMT).

The Cuban government reported on Monday that 10 people had been killed after Irma battered the island’s north coast with ferocious winds and 36-foot (11-meter) waves over the weekend. This raised the overall death toll from Irma’s powerful rampage through the Caribbean to 38.

Northeastern Florida cities including Jacksonville were facing flash flooding, with the city’s sheriff’s office pulling residents from waist-deep water.

“Stay inside. Go up. Not out,” Jacksonville’s website warned residents. “There is flooding throughout the city and more rain is expected.”

 

HEART-POUNDING NIGHT

After what she called a terrifying night bunkered in her house in St. Petersburg, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, with her children and extended family, Julie Hally emerged with relief on Monday. The winds had toppled some large tree branches and part of a fence, but her house was undamaged.

“My heart just pounded out of my chest the whole time,” said Hally, 37. “You hear stuff hitting your roof. It honestly sounds like somebody is just whistling at your window the whole night. It’s really scary.”

Governor Rick Scott said he would travel later on Monday to the Florida Keys. Irma first came ashore at Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 kph.)

U.S. President Donald Trump in a ceremony at the Pentagon to remember the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks vowed a full response to Irma, as well as continued federal support for victims of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Texas.

“These are storms of catastrophic severity and we are marshalling the full resources of the federal government to help our fellow Americans,” Trump said. “When Americans are in need, Americans pull together and we are one country.”

The state’s largest city, Miami, was spared the brunt of the storm but still saw heavy flooding. Utility crews were already on the streets there clearing downed trees and utility lines. All causeways leading to Miami Beach were closed by police.

As it traveled through the center of the state early on Monday, Irma brought gusts of up to 100 mph (160 kph) and torrential rain to areas around Orlando, one of the most popular areas for tourism in Florida because of its cluster of theme parks, the National Weather Service said.

A piece of a McDonald’s “golden arch” sign hung in a tree near the fast-food restaurant in the central Florida city of Kissimmee on Monday morning. Valerie Gilleece, 55, had ridden out the storm in the city because her wheelchair-bound husband insisted on it, she said.

“I’m just thanking God to be alive,” Gilleece said. “I wanted to go from the start but he’s stubborn as hell.”

Over the weekend, Irma claimed its first U.S. fatality – a man found dead in a pickup truck that had crashed into a tree in high winds in the town of Marathon, in the Florida Keys, local officials said.

During its passage through the Caribbean en route to Florida, Irma was ranked at the rare top end of the scale of hurricane intensity, a Category 5, for days. It carried maximum sustained winds of up to 185 mph (295 kph) when it crashed into the island of Barbuda on Wednesday.

Ahead of Irma’s arrival, some 6.5 million people in southern Florida, about a third of the state’s population, were ordered to evacuate their homes. Some 200,000 were housed in shelters during the storm, according to federal officials.

 

DAMAGE ESTIMATES

The storm did some $20 billion to $40 billion in damage to insured property as it tore through Florida, catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated.

That estimate, lower than earlier forecasts of up to $50 billion in insured losses, drove insurance company shares higher on Monday. Florida-based insurers Federated National, HCI Group and Universal Insurance were all up more than 12 percent. Meanwhile, Europe’s insurance index was the biggest sectoral gainer, up 2 percent and set for its best day in more than four months.

High winds snapped power lines and left about 5.8 million Florida homes and businesses without power, state data showed.

Miami International Airport, one of the busiest in the country, halted passenger flights through at least Monday. According to the FlightAware.com tracking site, a total of 3,582 U.S. flights were canceled on Monday, mostly as a result of the storm.

Irma was forecast to cross the eastern Florida Panhandle and move into southern Georgia later in the day, dumping as much as 16 inches (41 cm) of rain, government forecasters said.

Police in Miami-Dade County said they had made 29 arrests for looting and burglary.

 

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Andy Sullivan in Miami, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Doina Chiacu and Jeff Mason in Washington, Scott DiSavino in New York and Marc Frank in Havana; Writing by Scott Malone and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frances Kerry and Paul Simao)

 

Irma knocks out power to nearly 6 million: authorities

A lifeguard hut is pictured as Hurricane Irma arrives in Hollywood, Florida. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Scott DiSavino

(Reuters) – Hurricane Irma knocked out power to about 5.8 million homes and businesses in Florida, even as the storm weakened as it crept up the state’s west coast, according to state officials and local electric utilities.

Irma hit Florida on Sunday morning as a dangerous Category 4 hurricane, the second-highest level on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. It gradually lost strength and weakened to a tropical storm by Monday morning as it headed toward Georgia, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT)..

Maximum sustained winds were at 70 miles (110 km) per hour, the forecaster said.

Power losses in Georgia, which were at about 152,000 as of 8:45 a.m. EDT, were expected to increase as the storm moved north.

In Florida, the state’s biggest electric company said its outages came to more than 3.6 million by 8:30 a.m. on Monday. A total of 4.2 million Florida Power &amp; Light customers have been affected, with about 570,000 getting service restored, mostly by automated devices.

Full restoration of power could take weeks in many areas due to expected damage to FPL’s system, the NextEra Energy Inc unit said.

As the storm pushed north, outage figures were increasing at other large utilities, including units of Duke Energy Corp, Southern Co and Emera Inc.

Duke’s outages jumped to more than 860,000 overnight; the company said they could ultimately exceed 1 million. Emera’s Tampa Electric utility reported 300,000 homes and businesses lost power by Monday morning.

FPL said its two nuclear plants were safe. Both units at its Turkey Point facility, located about 30 miles (48 km) south of Miami, were shut by early Monday.

The company closed Turkey Point’s Unit 3 on Saturday as Irma approached the coast but decided not shut Unit 4 at that time because the hurricane track shifted away from the plant toward the western part of the Florida Peninsula. FPL, however, shut Unit 4 on Sunday night due to a possible valve issue that was probably not related to Irma, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said on Monday.

At its St Lucie nuclear plant located about 120 miles (190 km) north of Miami, FPL started to reduce power at Unit 1 due to salt buildup from Irma in the switchyard, NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said. The plant’s other reactor, Unit 2, continued to operate at full power.

Duke’s retired Crystal River plant, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Tampa, has spent nuclear fuel, but Hannah said that was not a problem.

As the storm loomed and came ashore, gasoline stations struggled to keep up as people evacuated Florida. In the Atlanta metropolitan area, about 13.2 percent of stations were out of the fuel, according to information service Gas Buddy.

Irma is expected to sap demand for fuel for a time, Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note on Monday, but they cautioned that supply could remain strained due to refining capacity offline in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas two weeks ago.

 

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; Additional reporting by Ruthy Munoz in Houston; Editing by Frances Kerry and Lisa Von Ahn)

 

Georgia unveils statue of civil rights leader King on capitol grounds

Members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family and Georgia elected leaders stand in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue unveiled in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., August 28, 2017. REUTERS/David Beasley

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia on Monday unveiled a statue of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the same capitol grounds in Atlanta where statues of segregationists remain.

The new installation comes amid an intensified debate in the United States over Confederate symbols after a woman was killed during an Aug. 12 protest by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, objecting to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The bronze King statue should provide a sense of hope, his daughter Bernice King told the several hundred people who attended the unveiling ceremony in the state that was part of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.

The event on Monday was timed to coincide with the 54th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech calling for racial justice and equality.

The civil rights leader said it was his dream that the sons of former slaves and former slave owners would one day sit down together in brotherhood.

“Well, the sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners sat down in this state capitol and made the decision to erect the Martin Luther King Jr. monument,” Bernice King said.

King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was assassinated in 1968, was born a few blocks from the Georgia capitol. Although his portrait is on display inside the building, there had been no monuments to him on the Capitol grounds. The statue faces his birthplace.

The monument to King joins existing statues on capitol grounds of John B. Gordon, a Confederate military general; Joseph Brown, the state’s governor during the Civil War; and past Governor Eugene Talmadge, a staunch segregationist.

Georgia state officials in 2014 announced plans for the King statue a few months after they quietly relocated off capitol grounds a statue of Thomas Watson, a U.S. senator who died in 1922. Watson espoused bigoted attitudes towards African Americans, Catholics, and Jews, according to scholars.

“This day took much too long to get here,” said David Ralston, the Republican speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives. “From those days we can grow and learn.”

(Reporting by David Beasley in Atlanta; Editing by Bernie Woodall, Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker)