Texas Governor unveils school safety plan after deadly shooting

Community members stood in support as students and administrators returned for the first day of class since a deadly mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Pu Ying Huang

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveiled a $110 million program intended to increase school safety by putting additional trained marshals inside schools and more closely monitoring social media for threats in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting earlier this month.

The plan was announced nearly two weeks after a 17-year-old armed with a shotgun and pistol killed 10 students and educators at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area.

It followed a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February in which 17 people, mostly students, were massacred.

“Everybody in this entire process and everybody in the state of Texas never wants to see another occasion where innocent students are gunned down in their own schools,” Abbott told a news conference in Dallas on Wednesday.

The proposed funding works out to about $20 per student in a state that has about 5.5 million students enrolled in its public schools.

The 40-point plan, which followed meetings last week between Abbott and education and law enforcement officials, calls for enhanced mental health resources for students and new metal detectors for extra security at schools, Abbott said in a statement.

The Texas Democratic Party issued a statement condemning the governor’s plan, claiming that he failed to directly address gun crimes that occur in the United States.

“Nothing in Abbott’s plans address the reality that it is too easy for a weapon to end up in the hands of someone wanting to cause harm,” Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

Abbott is an ardent defender of the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Soon after the shooting at Santa Fe High School he said that any proposed legal changes that he would consider to improve school safety would “protect Second Amendment rights.”

His proposals include eliminating a rule that requires some school marshals to store their weapons in a safe while on campus.

Abbott said he would ask lawmakers to consider legislation to allow law enforcement, families, school staff or a district attorney to file a petition seeking the removal of firearms from a potentially dangerous person only after legal due process was provided.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Scott Malone)

Bus carrying students crashes in Alabama, killing at least one

Emergency service vehicles gather on Interstate 10 at the scene of a bus crash in Baldwin County, Alabama, U.S., March 13, 2018 in this still image obtained from social media video. Jesus Tejeda via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A bus carrying dozens of Texas high school students on a trip veered across the median separating two lanes of an interstate highway in Alabama and plunged into a ravine, killing at least one person and injuring several others, authorities said.

The bus was taking about 45 passengers back home to Houston from Florida when it plunged into a 50-foot (15-meter) ravine at about 5:30 a.m. CDT (6.30 a.m ET), Baldwin County, Alabama, Sheriff Hoss Mack told reporters at the scene.

“For whatever reason, the charter bus got into the median and ended up going into a ravine,” Mack said near the scene of the accident on Interstate 10 between Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida.

“We have one confirmed fatality,” he said.

The injured passengers, including one listed in critical condition and five in serious condition, were taken by helicopter or ambulance to 10 hospitals in Alabama and Florida, Mack said.

The students were from Channelview High School in the Houston area, local media reported. School officials could not be reached for immediate comment.

Rescue workers attend to the scene of a bus crash in Baldwin County, Alabama, U.S., March 13, 2018 in this still image obtained from social media video. Jesus Tejeda via REUTERS

Rescue workers attend to the scene of a bus crash in Baldwin County, Alabama, U.S., March 13, 2018 in this still image obtained from social media video. Jesus Tejeda via REUTERS

Dozens of people posted messages of grief and sympathy on the school’s Facebook page, saying they were praying for the students.

Officials said the bus was one of two Houston-bound charters traveling together and that no other vehicles were involved in the pre-dawn crash.

They said the accident’s cause would be investigated by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

The National Transportation Safety Board also said it was sending a team of six investigators to look into the crash.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

Father who forgave son for family’s murder asks Texas to spare his life

Thomas Whitaker appears in a booking photo by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, Texas, U.S., obtained by Reuters on February 16, 2018. Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A Texas man who survived a deadly domestic attack hatched by his son is pushing the state to grant clemency to the condemned man, although it has never spared a death row inmate solely at the formal request of the victim’s family.

Thomas “Bart” Whitaker is set to be put to death by lethal injection on Feb. 22 for masterminding a 2003 plot near Houston that left his mother Tricia, 51, and brother Keith, 19, dead and his father Kent with a bullet wound near his heart.

In the 31 states with capital punishment, district attorneys make the decision whether to seek death, balancing the punishment that they consider best serves society with the wishes of the victim’s family. In this case, the local Texas prosecutors pursued death and jurors decided Bart Whitaker, 38, deserved to be executed.

His father, a 69-year-old devout Christian and retired executive, says if that penalty is implemented, it will only intensify his pain.

“I am going to be thrown into a deeper grief at the hands of the state of Texas, in the name of justice,” Kent Whitaker said last week, after a 30-minute meeting with the chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in Austin.

Whitaker says his son has been a model inmate and has provided letters from death row prison guards to back him up. According to the clemency petition, Kent Whitaker, his relatives and his wife’s family do not want Texas to execute Bart.

The panel’s decision is due on Tuesday, two days before the execution. If it recommends commuting the death sentence to life in prison, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, would make the final decision.

Tim Cole, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law and a former Texas district attorney, said the case points to a major flaw in the U.S. capital punishment system.

With no consistent criteria for prosecutors on whether they should seek execution, he said, the system is arbitrary.

“It is completely up to that one person, the district attorney, to seek death or not,” he said.

The Whitaker case is an outlier, however. In many cases, family members want the district attorney to seek the maximum punishment, Cole said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, clemency at the request of a forgiving victim’s family has been almost unheard of, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, which monitors U.S. capital punishment. It did happen in Georgia in 1990, the group said.

It is far more common for courts to halt executions for reasons ranging from doubts over guilt to procedural problems with prosecutions than it is for a governor to grant clemency.

Money may have motivated Bart Whitaker to plan to murder his family with the help of two other men, court documents showed. One of those men, his roommate Chris Brashear, shot the father, mother and brother after the family returned from a dinner out.

He shot Bart in the bicep to make it look he had also been attacked, court documents said. The two other men helped prosecutors pin the crime on Whitaker and were not sentenced to death.

Local prosecutors said they considered the family’s views but stood by Whitaker’s sentence as appropriate for such a brutal crime.

“We represent all of the community. It is not just one person we represent,” said Fred Felcman, first assistant district attorney for the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office. “Legally, justice says that he should be executed.”

Felcman believes Bart Whitaker is a sociopath and a master manipulator.

In the clemency petition, Kent Whitaker recalled lying in his hospital bed and facing the choice of slipping into despair or offering his son forgiveness. He said his faith led him to the latter option, which he hopes will sway Texas officials.

“We are not asking them to forgive him, or to let him go,” he added. “We just want them to let him live.”

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Rosalba O’Brien)

Special Report: Unfettered construction raises U.S. hurricane costs

Special Report: Unfettered construction raises U.S. hurricane costs

By Benjamin Lesser and Ryan McNeill

PATTON VILLAGE, Texas (Reuters) – When Hurricane Harvey sent two feet of water rolling into this small community about 35 miles north of Houston, Alfredo Becerra had to flee his modest 1,500-square-foot house.

Muddy floodwater submerged the furniture and ruined carpet inside the construction worker’s longtime home. He has been living in temporary housing since the storm struck in August. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave him $15,000 in aid.

One month later, across the Gulf of Mexico in Big Pine Key, Florida, moving company driver Byron Keeble lost about $10,000 worth of belongings, including a new sofa and his television, when Hurricane Irma sent a surge of seawater through his rented ground-floor apartment. Keeble said FEMA paid for him to stay in a hotel for a few weeks while he tried to figure out where he would go next.

Floodwaters aren’t the only common thread in the two men’s stories. Also linking them is this: Neither should have been living in harm’s way.

Becerra’s and Keeble’s homes were built or rented out in violation of National Flood Insurance Program rules. Like thousands of others in the hurricane-ravaged Florida Keys and on the Texas Gulf Coast, such houses are undermining efforts to limit flood damage, lower the cost of disaster assistance and reduce claims on the taxpayer-backed federal flood insurance program, a Reuters investigation found.

Similar rule-busting construction has happened in scores of communities across the United States, where local, state and federal officials have failed to enforce regulations intended to restrict building in areas at high risk of flooding.

Across the country, newer construction in flood-prone areas generated more than $9 billion in claims for structural damage on the cash-strapped flood insurance program between 2000 and 2015. Flood-management authorities say that some of those claims probably never would have been filed had proper building controls and accurate flood maps been in place.

“You look at the media images and you see new subdivisions, new strip malls and new buildings with water up to the rooftop. Those are red flags in my mind. Those shouldn’t be happening,” said Paul Osman, floodplain program manager for the Illinois Office of Water Resources.

Controlling construction inside flood-prone areas is critical to keeping flood insurance affordable and reducing post-disaster costs, federal officials say. The primary tool used to ensure communities are doing so effectively is a system of audits of how localities adhere to their own floodplain-management rules. But that system is crippled by a lack of funding and political will, Reuters found in a review of thousands of federal and state documents and dozens of interviews with flood-management authorities.

Many communities go years without these audits, which are conducted by FEMA or state officials and known as community assistance visits. And when serious problems are uncovered, Reuters found, FEMA has been ineffective in forcing communities to fix them.

Hurricanes Irma, which devastated Florida, and Harvey, which inundated vast sections of Texas, have already generated almost $7 billion in flood insurance claims paid. Houston, where $1.3 billion of those claims originated, has not had an audit in at least eight years.

FEMA has leverage: It oversees the National Flood Insurance Program, and can use it to punish a community that fails for years to address problems. The first sanction is probation, which imposes on all policyholders in the community a $50-a-year surcharge on flood insurance premiums until violations are resolved. If the issues aren’t fixed, FEMA can impose a tougher measure: The entire community can be suspended altogether, and all property owners lose access to flood insurance.

Residents and floodplain-management officials told Reuters they think FEMA is reluctant to use these sanctions, however. Of the 22,000 communities participating in the flood insurance program, four are now suspended for failing to enforce floodplain-management rules. Thirty have been suspended for that reason since 1978.

FEMA’s desire is to keep a community in the program “as long as there is any hope of compliance” to avoid stopping regulation altogether, said Rachel Sears, director of FEMA’s floodplain-management division. “We want to keep that relationship intact,” she said. “We only move toward probation or suspension when there is no further hope.”

UNCHECKED RISKS

When Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, the region was filled with thousands of homes that federal or state officials suspected of having illegal ground-floor enclosures. Those code-breaking homes were unaddressed despite decades of prodding from FEMA.

It is difficult to quantify the costs to taxpayers from the failure to control development in high-risk areas. FEMA doesn’t ask insurance agents and adjusters to identify illegal structures when reviewing claims. And homeowners are allowed to claim losses for a prescribed list of items, including washers and dryers, even if they had been kept in an illegal basement or low-lying enclosure.

All of this stresses an insurance program that the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, considers to be at high risk of fraud, waste and mismanagement. Until recently, the National Flood Insurance Program owed $25 billion to U.S. taxpayers because it borrowed to cover past disaster losses. In August, President Donald Trump signed a disaster relief bill that forgave $16 billion of that debt. Congress is still considering a long-term fix to the program.

Eric Letvin, a deputy assistant administrator for the National Flood Insurance Program, said he thinks FEMA is largely successful at ensuring communities control risky development. But he acknowledged the agency could do better.

“It’s one of the areas I want to focus on for improvement, especially in the post-disaster environment,” he said.

Only 23 percent of the more than 22,000 communities that participate in the flood insurance program had an audit by federal or state floodplain-management authorities in the eight years ending in 2016, FEMA documents show.

Some communities may not need an audit: They have little new development or a low risk of flooding. But the list of areas without a recent visit includes fast-growing major cities like Miami and Houston, each of which has seen severe flooding recently.

In interviews with Reuters, state and local officials in Texas could not recall the last time federal or state auditors visited Houston, but it has been at least eight years.

“I don’t know,” said Jamila Johnson, who took the helm of the city’s floodplain office in 2009. “That was before I became the city’s floodplain manager.”

FEMA recommends to each state that an auditor visit all high-risk communities every five years. In its 2010 risk ratings, it listed Houston as the top priority in Texas for auditing.

Texas is not alone. In 13 of 50 states, no federal or state auditor visited the highest-risk community between 2009 and 2016, a Reuters review of FEMA documents found.

FEMA isn’t keeping up, either. Despite its own guidance requiring it to produce community risk ratings annually, it hasn’t done so since 2010.

Meanwhile, building continues in many flood-prone areas. There is no comprehensive way to quantify flood damage to properties built illegally. But if newer structures are built in adherence with the rules, flood specialists said, such buildings should rarely flood. Communities with many illegal buildings or inaccurate maps, on the other hand, are likely to have a high percentage of flood insurance claims from new structures in risky areas.

A Reuters analysis of all flood insurance claims filed between 2000 and 2015 found that, nationwide, 27 percent of claims in high-risk areas came from owners of newer structures. States with a high percentage of such claims included Alabama (59 percent), Mississippi (50 percent), and North Carolina (44 percent).

About 41 percent of claims in Florida and 31 percent in Texas came from newer structures.

The total cost of insurance claims for structural damage to new buildings in risky areas, in adjusted 2017 dollars: $9.5 billion.

On top of that, as in the cases of Becerra and Keeble, FEMA sometimes doles out disaster aid. Data are not available to ascertain how much of that aid goes to people living in illegal structures.

Such losses suggest something is awry, floodplain managers and researchers said. Either the community is failing to enforce its floodplain-management rules, or maps do not accurately detail the community’s flood risk.

FEMA delegates the job of conducting most audits to state officials. Those officials, in turn, say they lack resources to visit more communities. For each of the past five budget years, FEMA has allotted a total of $10.4 million to the states and territories, which must match 25 percent of the money. But the dollars must also be spent on other initiatives, such as public outreach.

The number and frequency of visits varies widely by state. In Florida, FEMA and state officials have visited 64 percent of the communities participating in the flood insurance program. In Texas, the number is 12 percent.

Alfredo Becerra’s flooded home is but one example Reuters found of the results of decades of lax oversight in the Houston area.

Becerra’s property is in a floodway – an area that carries the bulk of any floodwaters downstream and where the most destructive damage is likely. Under FEMA regulations, when Becerra built his home in 1985, Patton Village officials should have required that the house be certified as standing at an elevation above expected flood levels. City officials were also obliged under FEMA rules to require an engineering study to prove the structure wouldn’t cause floodwaters to rise even higher, damaging other properties.

Patton Village officials had no records indicating any of those steps were taken. Becerra said he did not know his property was in a floodway.

He received temporary housing assistance that paid for his stay in a hotel for at least two weeks. He says he also received $15,000 in federal disaster aid to repair the damage to his home. He did not have flood insurance.

Leah Tarrant, the mayor of Patton Village since 2013, acknowledges the village hasn’t done its part to control development.

“Honestly, we have never really dealt with floodplain management,” she said. “I’m just being honest with you.”

In surrounding Montgomery County, dozens of properties in multiple communities were built after official flood maps detailed the floodway and floodplain boundaries, according to a March 2017 FEMA audit of the county and a Reuters analysis of appraisal records and flood maps. Many of the houses had no evidence of the required hydrologic studies or proof that the building’s lowest floor exceeded the expected heights of floodwaters. Some flooded during Harvey.

Most of the properties identified by Reuters are in unincorporated areas, which fall under the jurisdiction of county government.

When questioned about the floodway structures, Mark Mooney, the county’s floodplain manager, said the county banned development in the floodway until 2014. He said he couldn’t explain how, if such a ban was in place, so many homes had been built inside the floodway over the last three decades.

“Some of the listed properties could have been constructed without the county being contacted for necessary permits,” Mooney said. “Unfortunately, we do not have a staff that can police daily, when and where everything gets built in our large county. We will definitely follow up.”

RESISTANCE AND POLITICS

Reuters obtained documents from FEMA summarizing the results of 6,253 audits of floodplain-management enforcement conducted between 2009 and 2016 in all 50 states. Auditors identified serious issues in 13 percent of those visits.

It often takes years, or even decades, to bring a community into compliance after an audit failure. As of Jan. 1, 2017, serious violations remained unresolved for three years or longer in 119 communities across the country. That list includes places at high risk of flooding such as Boca Raton, Florida, and St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Monroe County, Florida, where FEMA spent decades trying to eliminate illegal construction, shows why so many known problems persist: Community resistance and politics often impede enforcement efforts.

Years before Hurricane Irma struck the county, authorities identified thousands of suspected illegal enclosures. By the time the storm hit, they had not yet inspected half of those properties to see if they complied with floodplain codes. As of the end of November, the county’s property owners had been paid $62 million in insurance claims for flood damage from Irma.

FEMA first noticed problems in Monroe County during two visits in the 1980s. But the county’s leadership was uncooperative and remained so for years, said Brad Loar, who retired in 2014 as director of the FEMA Region IV mitigation division.

“They pretty much resisted anything that we wanted to talk to them about,” said Loar, who was involved in the first FEMA visit in 1982. “We didn’t see a whole lot of understanding or corrective action for most of the whole thing.”

What auditors found in Monroe County is typical of the Florida Keys. Living space in high-risk areas is supposed to be elevated above expected 100-year floodwater heights. Here, though, property owners often furnish ground-floor enclosures, either to expand their living space or to rent out the extra rooms. The low-rent enclosures are popular with the waiters, cooks, maids and other service industry workers essential to the area’s tourism industry.

When FEMA officials returned to audit Monroe County a third time in 1995, they found the illegal living spaces had become so widespread that sanctions were warranted.

Had FEMA placed Monroe County on probation after the 1995 visit, the agency would have put one of the most hurricane-prone areas in the country on the road to losing flood insurance. Instead, FEMA pressured the county to agree in 2002 to a pilot project that called for inspections of about 5,700 properties.

Property owners with insurance were told they needed to request an inspection from the county before renewing their policies. Also, owners of the 5,700 properties who sought a building permit for any reason had to agree to an inspection.

The inspection program caused a row in county politics that lasted 11 years. Although county government had begun cooperating with FEMA, contractors complained that the inspections deterred residents from upgrading their homes. Residents complained they couldn’t sell their places. Local, state and federal officials faced calls from residents and contractors to end the inspections.

In 2011, homeowners and contractors lobbied the Florida legislature to ban local authorities from conducting the building-permit inspections. FEMA officials argued against the legislation until, local activists said, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, stepped in and pressured the agency to back off.

“It was huge,” lobbyist John November said of Nelson’s involvement. “Without his participation … that pilot program might still be going on.”

By the time the pilot program ended in 2013, only half of the 5,700 properties FEMA suspected of having illegal enclosures had been inspected.

Despite the lingering problems, Monroe County is a FEMA poster child. The agency describes the community as “one of the best examples” of compliance in the country.

(Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams. Edited by Janet Roberts.)

Hurricane Harvey makes Houston reassess growth-friendly policies

Hurricane Harvey makes Houston reassess growth-friendly policies

By Andy Sullivan

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Melinda and Joel Loshak raised two children in a stylish ranch house in Houston’s upscale Meyerland neighborhood and planned to retire there. Now they are hoping the government will knock it down.

After Hurricane Harvey pushed oily floodwaters into their house in August, the Loshaks asked local officials to buy them out, joining more than 3,000 other Houston-area homeowners who grew weary of ripping out waterlogged drywall and ruined refrigerators after three devastating floods in three years.

“I call the house my albatross. It just follows us; it’s hanging from our necks, pulling us down,” said Melinda Loshak, 61.

The buyout program is just one way Houston hopes to better protect itself against future floods. But even as the city prepares to demolish thousands of homes in low-lying areas, developers are putting up hundreds more.

Experts and some elected officials say the region needs to take a hard look at the growth-friendly policies that have increased the risk of flooding even as they have helped keep housing affordable in the United States’ fourth-largest city.

“There’s no indication that we’re going to do anything philosophically different,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice University. “With a few modifications, it’s business as usual.”

As Houston rebuilds from the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, local officials plan to dredge waterways, build new reservoirs and a coastal barrier to protect against storms that experts say are growing in intensity due to a warming climate. They have asked Washington for $61 billion to pay for it all.

Some local leaders, such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, have called for development rules to be tightened and for new taxes to fund flood defenses.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently said his government would take a closer look at development projects.

But that has not stopped one developer from moving ahead with plans to build 900 houses on a former golf course in a flood zone. Local activists say it is a prime example of runaway development that will make flooding worse.

“That water now doesn’t have a place to go, and it has to go somewhere else – more likely into older neighborhoods that may or may not have flooded prior to this,” said Ed Browne, chairman of a grassroots group called Citizens Against Flooding. “It’s incredibly unfair to allow this to happen.”

Developer Meritage Homes says the project includes bigger retention ponds than are required by law to stop stormwater spilling into the surrounding community. The development “will have zero negative impact on downstream flooding,” the company said in a statement.

Since 2010, more than 7,000 homes have been built in flood zones in Harris County, which includes Houston, according to a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation.

Some developers say they are willing to consider tougher guidelines – up to a point.

“Any time you have a big storm like this, it’s not a bad idea to look and make sure you have the right answers,” said Augie Campbell, president of the West Houston Association, a local business group. “It’s just important that you don’t rush to judgment too quickly.”

In the meantime, Harris County officials have allocated $20 million to buy 200 homes that flooded during Harvey and are asking the federal government for another $800 million, which would let them purchase another 5,000 houses.

Some 3,636 residents have applied for the buyouts, Harris County Flood Control District spokeswoman Karen Hastings said.

The money, if it wins approval from Congress, is not likely to come through for months.

Meanwhile, the Loshaks have torn out the waterlogged kitchen cabinets they installed after their house flooded for the first time, back in 2015. They have plugged in dehumidifiers and fans to fend off mold. They do not want to have to rebuild again.

“I just would like it to be gone, because it’s so stressful and depressing to see the house and see the neighborhood and know that it’s just going to happen over and over again,” Melinda Loshak said.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)

Houston-area woman charged with mailing explosives to Obama, Texas governor

Houston-area woman charged with mailing explosives to Obama, Texas governor

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A Houston-area woman has been charged with mailing booby-trapped packages designed to explode to former U.S. President Barack Obama, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and a federal office in Maryland.

Julia Poff, 46, was ordered held in jail last week ahead of trial after she was indicted on charges of mailing packages last year that were designed to kill, transporting explosives and other criminal counts, court documents showed.

“Poff presents a real safety risk to witnesses and others in the community,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Frances Stacy wrote in a five-page order outlining the case.

Poff, who was charged earlier this month and pleaded not guilty last week, reached out to the Houston Chronicle to defend herself, the newspaper reported on its website on Thursday.

Poff told the Chronicle that investigators had taken trash from her home. The trash was “used in some serious crimes that we did not commit and know nothing about,” she was quoted as saying.

It was not clear whom Poff was referring to as “we.”

An explosive-laden package mailed to Obama in October 2016, while he was still in office, contained hair that an FBI crime lab matched to one of Poff’s cats, the judge wrote in the detention order.

Poff is said to have expressed dislike for Obama, who is a Democrat, according to the order. Packages sent to Obama and the U.S. Social Security Administration in Maryland were both stopped in screening, according to Houston TV station KPRC.

In October 2016, Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, opened a third package that also was rigged to explode, but it failed to detonate.

The judge’s detention order said Poff was upset with Abbott because she believed that in his previous role as state attorney general, he played a part in her inability to receive support from her ex-husband.

It was unclear what type of support Poff might have sought. The state attorney general’s office has a division that handles requests for child support after a divorce or separation.

The packages sent to Obama, the Social Security Administration and Abbott contained pyrotechnic powder, and investigators found a large amount of fireworks at Poff’s home in Brookshire, west of Houston, the court order said.

Poff is represented by a public defender, who could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

She is scheduled to appear in court for a hearing on Jan. 2.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney)

Texas gives Houston $50 million for Hurricane Harvey costs

Texas gives Houston $50 million for Hurricane Harvey costs

(Reuters) – Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Friday gave $50 million to Houston to help cover costs related to Hurricane Harvey, a move the mayor said will allow the city to avoid a temporary property tax hike that was up for a city council vote in October.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who accepted the money from the Republican governor at a city hall press conference, said he will pull his proposal for a one-year tax increase to cover the city’s share of debris removal expenses and for insurance-related payments.

Parts of Houston suffered severe wind and flood damage after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25. It was the strongest hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years.

Earlier this week, Abbott rejected Turner’s request for the state to immediately tap its $10 billion rainy day fund to aid its largest city.

On Friday, the governor said he had the flexibility to withdraw $50 million from a state disaster relief fund for Houston.

“This looked like the best solution at this point,” Abbott told reporters.

He added that once the state gets a handle on total hurricane expenses, the Texas legislature will consider tapping into the rainy day fund when its next regular session begins in January 2019 or sooner in a special session.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Morningside team arrives in Florida for disaster relief and YOU made it happen!

Mondo and Ricky in Immokalee, Florida on Disaster Relief visit.

By Kami Klein

Our team from Morningside is now outside of Naples Florida, in Immokalee, one of the hardest hit communities of Hurricane Irma.  With no power, lack of good drinking water and warm meals for families, the people in this community have been devastated but have gathered together as family and are working together to recover from this massive disaster.   

Mondo DeLaVega, Ricky Bakker, Tammy Sue Bakker, Daina Martin are joined by our camera crew David Zorob, Hamilton Neumann and Adam Armstrong on the ground in Florida ready to help distribute the food, water bottles and the precious leatherbound MEV Bibles to people who are hurting so much.  These donations would NOT have been possible without your generous donations and compassion!  

Immokalee, Florida is the center of the region’s agricultural industries in Florida and home to many immigrant and migrant families who work the vast fields that produce huge amounts of fresh produce to the United States.  Crops include cucumbers, bell peppers, citrus fruits and about 90% of the nation’s tomatoes that are harvested during the winter months.  

The Morningside team is working with Pastor Frank Rincon of Bethel International Assemblies of God.  This church has been the heart of a community that has been ravaged by Hurricane Irma.  In addition to  cooking and serving hot meals by the thousands, they have been responsible for distributing blankets, sleeping bags, diapers, pillows, bed sheets, coolers, T-shirts, towels, water filter kits, women’s essentials and tarps for roofs.  

“Volunteers are coming in from all of the United States to help here!” said Ricky Bakker, one of the Morningside team members. “It is amazing how people are coming together to help this community!”

The Morningside truck arrived soon after the team in Immokalee.  Hundreds of buckets have been unloaded and volunteers are ready to pass out 90 day buckets of food, rice, beans, dehydrated bananas, apples and milk along with water filter bottles from Seychelle to the many needy people in that community.  Ricky added that the rice and beans from donations to our Disaster Relief fund can stretch 3 or 4 thousand meals to 5 or 6 thousand hot meals for the families in Immokalee and surrounding areas.  “We don’t just want to bring food and water to them, we want to help offer a little bit of normal, add a little bit of comfort.”

You are the hands and feet of Jesus on the ground, and you are making a tremendous difference!  The Morningside team is there representing you and spreading the love of God to people who are desperate to hear it!  

Mondo said it best in a recent Facebook live post on The Jim Bakker Show Facebook page.    

“Thank you for being a part of the blessing of relief for these people so hard hit by disaster!  Because of your donations and faith you have given us the opportunity to serve this community!  Thank you for believing in our ministry!  Thank you for making this happen!”  

There is so much devastation here in the world today!  Hurricanes and flooding in Texas, in Florida, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.  There are thousands of homeless people in Mexico due to earthquakes.  You ARE making an impact!  Your gifts are saving lives and helping to rebuild communities with your love and donations.  If you wish to give to our Disaster Relief and help be a part of the work that God asks of us, please give now to the Disaster Relief Fund! 

Matthew 25:42-45 MEV   42 For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’44 “Then they also will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not serve You?’45 “He will answer, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it not for one of the least of these, you did it not for Me.’

Stay tuned for more updates on our Disaster Relief Team out on the field and watch for more Facebook live reports!

Hiscox estimates $150 million net claims from Harvey

FILE PHOTO: Jesus Rodriguez rescues Gloria Garcia after rain from Hurricane Harvey flooded Pearland, in the outskirts of Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

By Noor Zainab Hussain

(Reuters) – Lloyd’s of London underwriter Hiscox Ltd <HSX.L> estimated it would face net claims of about $150 million from Hurricane Harvey and said it has yet to determine losses from Hurricane Irma.

Insurers and reinsurers are counting the cost of Harvey, which lashed Texas in the last week of August causing flooding that put it on the scale of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Hiscox said it had two main areas of exposure to the hurricane – reinsurance and insurance lines, including flood cover for homeowners and businesses.

“This (claims) is within the group’s modelled range of claims for an event of this nature, and reinsurance protections for the group remain substantially intact,” Hiscox said in a statement. It said its claims’ estimate was based on an industry forecast that Harvey would lead to a total insured market loss of $25 billion.

Hiscox shares fell 3.1 percent to 1212 pence by 0913 GMT, the second biggest loser on the Stoxx Europe 600 Price Index <.STOXX>, as analysts expected the company would face bigger losses from Hurricane Irma than Harvey.

Germany’s Munich Re <MUVGn.DE> last week warned it could miss its profit target this year, the first major reinsurer to flag a hit to earnings from damage caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Shore Capital analyst Eamonn Flanagan noted that the loss from Harvey equated to about 6 percent of Hiscox’s net tangible asset value as at the June end.

Hiscox said it would announce an estimate of net claims arising from Hurricane Irma, once the impact of that storm has become clearer.

Chief Executive Bronek Masojada said the storms meant insurance rates were on an uptrend.

“After a long period of price reductions, insurance rates in the affected areas and in specific sectors such as large property are likely to increase. In the wider global insurance market for large risks, we expect rates to stabilise and begin to increase,” Masojada said.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean storms on record, ravaged several islands in the northern Caribbean, killing at least 60 people, before barrelling into Florida’s Gulf Coast, causing further destruction.

“With Irma expected to be a larger event, our initial view is this is slightly more negative than we had anticipated. We expect Hiscox to trade down today and expect uncertainty to persist around Beazley <BEZG.L> and Lancashire <LRE.L> who are yet to publish their own estimates,” Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Rufus Hone, said, referring to other Lloyd’s of London insurers.

Hone added that while the this year would likely be a net loss overall for Hiscox, it would not have “much of an impact” on the insurer’s expansion plans or put the dividend under threat.

Risk modelling firms RMS estimates insured losses from Harvey of $25-$35 billion, while AIR Worldwide forecast total insured losses in the United States for Irma of $25-35 billion.

 

(Reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru Editing by Anjuli Davies and Susan Fenton)