Thousands stranded, five killed, as heavy rain lashes south China

Residential houses and cars are seen submerged in floodwaters following heavy rainfall in Taihe county, Jian, Jiangxi province, China June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Thousands of people have been stranded and at least five killed amid torrential rain throughout central and southern China, with authorities bracing themselves for at least another four days of downpours, state media reported on Tuesday.

The official China Daily said floods had wiped out 10,800 hectares of crops and destroyed hundreds of houses in the Jiangxi province by Monday, with a total of 1.4 million people affected and direct economic losses amounting to 2.65 billion yuan ($382.41 million).

In the region of Guangxi in the southwest, 20,000 households had their power cut and roads, bridges and other infrastructures were severely damaged, the China Daily said.

Rainfall in Jiangxi reached as much as 688 millimeters (27 inches), according to a notice by China’s meteorological administration. It said rain in parts of Jiangxi and Hunan had hit record highs for June.

The administration said rainstorms were expected to spread to Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan and Taiwan by Thursday. It also warned authorities to be on their guard against severe thunderstorms and the possibility of small rivers bursting their banks in coming days.

(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Paul Tait)

Trump points to Republican gains, broaches cooperation with Democrats

Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill addresses her supporters at her midterm election night party in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. November 6, 2018. McCaskill conceded the election to Republican Josh Hawley. REUTERS/Sarah Conard

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday portrayed the midterm election results as “an incredible day” for his Republicans despite a Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives that will lead to greater restraints on his administration.

At a White House news conference, Trump argued that Republicans beat historical odds in Tuesday’s elections, saying the party’s gains in the U.S. Senate outweighed its loss of the House.

He also mocked those Republican candidates who lost their seats after refusing to embrace him on the campaign trail, such as U.S. Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia.

“It was a big day yesterday, an incredible day,” he said in what was only his third formal solo news conference at the White House. “Last night the R party defied history to expand our Senate majority while significantly beating expectations in the House.”

Republicans expanded their control of the U.S. Senate, knocking off at least three Democratic incumbents on Tuesday, following a divisive campaign marked by fierce clashes over race and immigration.

But they lost their majority in the House, a setback for the president after a campaign that became a referendum on his combative leadership.

The divided power in Congress combined with Trump’s expansive view of executive power could herald even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock in Washington.

The Democrats will now head House committees that can investigate the president’s tax returns, possible business conflicts of interest and any links between his 2016 election campaign and Russia.

There may be some room, however, for Trump and Democrats to work together on issues with bipartisan support such as a package to improve infrastructure or protections against prescription drug price increases.

“It really could be a beautiful bipartisan situation,” Trump said.

He said Nancy Pelosi, who may be the next speaker of the House, had expressed to him in a phone call a desire to work together. But Trump doubted there would be much common ground if Democrats press investigations.

“You can’t do it simultaneously,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Patricia Zengerle, Amanda Bedcker and David Alexander in Washington and Megan Davies in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell and Steve Holland; Editing by Frances Kerry and Paul Simao)

Trump approves disaster aid for Hawaii’s volcano-stricken Big Island

Journalists and National Guard soldiers watch as lava erupts in Leilani Estates during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Jolyn Rosa

HONOLULU (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday approved federal emergency housing aid and other relief for victims of the six-week-old Kilauea Volcano eruption on Hawaii’s Big Island, where hundreds of homes have been destroyed, state officials said.

The approval came a day after Governor David Ige formally requested assistance for an estimated 2,800 residents who have lost their homes to lava flows or were forced from their dwellings under evacuation orders since Kilauea rumbled back to life on May 3.

Lava destroys homes in the Kapoho area, east of Pahoa, during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018.  REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Lava destroys homes in the Kapoho area, east of Pahoa, during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim has said that rivers of molten rock spewed from volcanic fissures at the foot of Kilauea have engulfed roughly 600 homes. The governor’s office put the number of residences destroyed at 455.

Either tally marks the greatest number of homes claimed over such a short period by Kilauea – or by any other volcano in Hawaii’s modern history – far surpassing the 215 structures consumed by lava in an earlier eruption cycle that began in 1983 and continued nearly nonstop for three decades, experts say.

The latest volcanic eruption also stands as the most destructive in the United States since at least the cataclysmic 1980 explosion of Mount St. Helens in Washington state that reduced hundreds of square miles to wasteland.

The geographical footprint of Kilauea’s current upheaval is much smaller, covering nearly 6,000 acres, or just over 9 square miles (2,400 hectares) of the Big Island in lava, an area roughly seven times Central Park in Manhattan.

No specific sum of money was sought by the governor for federal disaster aid, and no dollar figure was attached to the package Trump approved under the Individuals and Households Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Lava erupts in Leilani Estates during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Lava erupts in Leilani Estates during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper reported this week that eligible homeowners and renters could get up to $34,000 each.

The program provides grants to displaced residents to secure temporary housing while their homes are repaired or rebuilt. Assistance can also be obtained for repair and replacement costs.

In addition to housing assistance, Trump approved relief from several other FEMA programs, including crisis counseling, unemployment benefits and legal aid.

Trump previously issued a major disaster declaration weeks ago authorizing money from FEMA public assistance grants for the County of Hawaii, the island’s local governing authority.

Residents will be able to register for assistance at a disaster recovery center that will open on Friday at the Kea‘au High School Gymnasium. The center will be jointly operated by Hawaii County, the State of Hawaii and FEMA.

NO END IN SIGHT

His expansion of FEMA assistance came as the Kilauea eruption entered its 43rd day on Thursday.

In addition to lava and toxic sulfur dioxide gas spewing from about two-dozen fissures on the eastern flank of the volcano, daily periodic explosions of ash from the crater at Kilauea’s summit have created a nuisance and health hazard to communities downwind.

Volcanic smog, or vog, carried aloft by the winds has hampered air quality for parts of the island and been detected as far away as the western Pacific island of Guam.

The volcanic activity at Kilauea’s summit has also triggered thousands of mostly small-scale earthquakes that have added to the jitters of residents living nearby and damaged facilities at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the island’s biggest attraction. Most of the park remains closed.

A report from the governor accompanying his request for federal aid documented the larger toll taken on residents of the island’s volcano-stricken Puna district, including disruption of power, communications and drinking water infrastructure.

It cited an uptick in reports of residents “experiencing acute mental health effects of fear, anxiety and stress” as the crisis drags on with no end in sight.

With about one-fifth of Puna’s population displaced by the eruption, the disaster has created a “housing crisis in a rental market that was already severely constrained,” the report said.

In other economic impacts, the report cited losses of nearly $37 million in vacation rentals and $14 million from agriculture, including half of the state’s entire cut-flower industry and 80 percent of its papaya crop.

(Additonal reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles)

Houston still rebuilding from 2017 floods as new hurricane season arrives

A new home being constructed six feet above the ground to replace the one destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 is shown in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston, Texas, May 16, 2018. Photo taken May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ernest Scheyder

By Liz Hampton and Ernest Scheyder

HOUSTON (Reuters) – In an empty lot where Vincent Shields’ Houston home once stood, he points out properties whose owners were driven out after Hurricane Harvey inundated the region last summer.

“On this street there’s probably less than 30 percent occupancy,” said Shields, who tore down his house after the city ruled damage exceeded half its value and it would have to be elevated before being repaired. He and his wife moved into an apartment and began planning a new, higher home at the same location.

It has been roughly nine months since Hurricane Harvey dumped trillions of gallons of water on the U.S. Gulf Coast, killing 68 people and causing an estimated $125 billion in property damage.

Shields and some 25,000 Texas households are still displaced, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Nearly 80,000 homes across Texas had 18 inches of floodwater or more during Harvey.

In Houston, data on people still out of their homes and awaiting repairs are not available from the city. But U.S. Postal Service figures show 11,500 Houston homes became vacant between June 2017 and February 2018.

With the 2018 hurricane season beginning June 1, around 400 Houston households are still living in hotel rooms funded by FEMA, according to the agency’s latest data. Many others remain in temporary housing uncertain about their return home.

According to interviews with residents and neighborhood groups, many owners of flooded homes are still enmeshed in the emotionally fraught and expensive process of deciding whether to repair or elevate, or put their property up for sale.

Shields said the months since Harvey have been tough and fears that another major storm before the region fully recovers would be devastating.

“I can survive this once – health, wealth, physically – but I can’t do it again,” he said.

After three floods since 2014, local officials have added home-building restrictions and rules on rebuilding in flood-prone areas, giving owners of damaged homes costly new factors to consider.

Houston officials this year passed an ordinance requiring certain dwellings to be raised to the 500-year floodplain level plus two feet. Previously, only new homes had to start one foot above the 100-year level.

JACKED UP HOMES

The requirements have forced some owners to jack up existing homes to avoid the next flood.

Houston homes, typically built on slab foundations, can be mechanically raised for an average cost of $100,000 to $300,000 in a months-long project, said Wayne Fairley, a managing director at house elevating company Planet Three Elevation.

Fairley has tripled his workforce since Harvey to meet growing demand, he said. Subcontractors who once handled plumbing and electrical projects for the company now work for him full time.

“There were a lot of contracts signed post-Harvey,” said Fairley. About 5 to 10 percent of his clients are elevating their homes preemptively, and a large portion of his work is in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, which was hit by three major floods in recent years.

Nancy Wilson and her husband decided to tear down and build anew rather than spend the estimated $250,000 to raise and then remodel their 1950s home. The new house will be six feet higher than the old one, which got two feet of water during Harvey.

“I’m almost positive it will flood again,” said Wilson, a therapist, who hopes to move back by early next year. In the interim, the family is living a few miles away in a rental property.

“Honestly, I wish we were rebuilding higher,” said Wilson. “Six feet might not be high enough.”

STILL IN LIMBO

Gwen McGlory moved to west Houston’s Cinco Ranch neighborhood a decade ago for its good schools and gated subdivisions. Her house flooded after the city released water from a nearby reservoir to relieve stress on a dam, forcing her to find temporary housing.

Now, most mornings she drops her 14-year-old daughter off long before school has opened and picks her up hours after it has closed because the school system lacks funding to provide transportation from her current location.

“It’s concerning when I’m dropping her off at a dark school,” McGlory said, who is worried the transportation issues will continue into the next school year.

McGlory says she received $33,000 from FEMA after Harvey. Of that, $17,000 was earmarked for home repairs, despite bids from contractors pegging her damages closer to $70,000. The Red Cross worker recently was accepted to a rebuild and repair program run by a community group.

“I’m so overwhelmed. I am working and a single parent with two kids. I’ve never rebuilt a house before,” said McGlory, who had no flood insurance because her house was not in a floodplain.

While McGlory considered selling her property, an investor shortly after the storm offered $100,000 less than what she had paid for it.

Historically, home values in hard-hit areas can fall between 7 and 20 percent immediately after a flood, said Ed Wolff, president of real estate firm Beth Wolff Realtors and governmental affairs chair for the Houston Association of Realtors.

“You see a rebound after 18 to 24 months. As we get further away from the event the memories fade,” said Wolff, who decided to elevate his Meyerland home by almost six feet after Harvey and returned in early May.

The devastation of Harvey has pushed local officials and agencies to expand efforts to mitigate the impact of floods. Last year, county officials authorized $20 million to buy out homes that have routinely flooded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, which established its own buyout program in 1985, recently submitted a grant for state funding to buy homes damaged by Harvey. It has also focused on repairs to drainage infrastructure and removing debris from Harvey that could block waterways before the next hurricane.

Officials across the nation are becoming more aware of the dangers of urban flooding, which is aggravated by unbridled development, said Sam Brody, a professor in the Department of Marine Sciences and flooding expert at Texas A&M University in Galveston.

“Harvey exposed these underlying problems that cities such as Houston, Miami and Chicago face,” he said.

Texas is considering sweeping changes, including urging residents to buy flood insurance and raising the level of new homes, he said.

But the measures will take time to implement, Brody said. “There is a good likelihood we are going to get a major storm event before we are even partially recovered from this one.”

(Reporting by Liz Hampton and Ernest Scheyder in Houston and Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Richard Chang)

U.S. spending bill tackles border, election security: source

FILE PHOTO: U.S. border patrol officers are pictured near a prototype for U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall with Mexico, behind the current border fence in this picture taken from the Mexican side of the border in Tijuana, Mexico

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal government spending deal being worked out in the U.S. Congress includes additional funding to boost border security, protect the upcoming elections in November and rebuild aging infrastructure, a source familiar with the negotiations said on Wednesday.

While the source said a final overall spending agreement had not been reached, other Republican and Democratic congressional aides have told Reuters that leaders plan to unveil their agreement on the $1.3 trillion spending bill later on Wednesday.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Congress have until Friday night to reach a deal before a lapse would force federal agencies to suspend operations. The current plan would provide for government funding through Sept. 30, after a series of short-term funding measures implemented since last fall.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate said on Tuesday they were close to a deal and hoped to complete legislation by Friday as they worked to overcome divisions over several thorny issues such as President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

So far, the package provides $1.6 billion for some fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico and other technological border security efforts, the source said.

Trump had sought $25 billion for a full wall, but negotiations fell through to provide more money in exchange for protections for “Dreamers,” young adults who were brought illegally into the United States as children.

The spending plan also provides $307 million more than the Trump administration’s request for the FBI to counter Russian cyber attacks, and $380 million for U.S. states to improve their technology before November’s congressional election, according to the source.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia sought to meddle in the 2016 presidential election campaign, and intelligence chiefs said last month that Russia will seek to interfere in the midterm elections this year by using social media to spread propaganda and misleading reports. Russia has denied any interference.

The planned spending measure allocates $10 billion for spending on infrastructure such as highways, airports and railroads. It also includes money for the so-called Gateway rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey, the source said.

Trump has threatened to veto the bill if the Gateway project is included. While its funds remain, they are directed through the U.S. Department of Transportation, rather than provided directly, Politico reported.

Additionally, lawmakers’ added $2.8 billion to address opioid addiction, the source said.

One potential stumbling block includes gun-related provisions prompted by a mass shooting at a Florida high school on Feb. 14 that killed 17 students and faculty members. On Tuesday, as another shooting swept over a high school in Maryland, House Speaker Paul Ryan said lawmakers were still discussing a proposal to improve federal background checks for gun purchases.

Another issue tying up negotiations was tax treatment for grain co-ops versus corporate producers, according to Politico.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)

In a first, U.S. blames Russia for cyber attacks on energy grid

An electrical line technician works on restoring power in Vilonia, Arkansas April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Alle

By Dustin Volz and Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday blamed the Russian government for a campaign of cyber attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the U.S. power grid, marking the first time the United States has publicly accused Moscow of hacking into American energy infrastructure.

Beginning in March 2016, or possibly earlier, Russian government hackers sought to penetrate multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation and manufacturing, according to a U.S. security alert published Thursday.

The Department of Homeland Security and FBI said in the alert that a “multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors” had targeted the networks of small commercial facilities “where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks.” The alert did not name facilities or companies targeted.

The direct condemnation of Moscow represented an escalation in the Trump administration’s attempts to deter Russia’s aggression in cyberspace, after senior U.S. intelligence officials said in recent weeks the Kremlin believes it can launch hacking operations against the West with impunity.

It coincided with a decision Thursday by the U.S. Treasury Department to impose sanctions on 19 Russian people and five groups, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other malicious cyber attacks.

Russia in the past has denied it has tried to hack into other countries’ infrastructure, and vowed on Thursday to retaliate for the new sanctions.

‘UNPRECEDENTED AND EXTRAORDINARY’

U.S. security officials have long warned that the United States may be vulnerable to debilitating cyber attacks from hostile adversaries. It was not clear what impact the attacks had on the firms that were targeted.

But Thursday’s alert provided a link to an analysis by the U.S. cyber security firm Symantec last fall that said a group it had dubbed Dragonfly had targeted energy companies in the United States and Europe and in some cases broke into the core systems that control the companies’ operations.

Malicious email campaigns dating back to late 2015 were used to gain entry into organizations in the United States, Turkey and Switzerland, and likely other countries, Symantec said at the time, though it did not name Russia as the culprit.

The decision by the United States to publicly attribute hacking attempts of American critical infrastructure was “unprecedented and extraordinary,” said Amit Yoran, a former U.S. official who founded DHS’s Computer Emergency Response Team.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Yoran, now chief executive of the cyber firm Tenable, said.

A White House National Security Council spokesman did not respond when asked what specifically prompted the public blaming of Russia. U.S. officials have historically been reluctant to call out such activity in part because the United States also spies on infrastructure in other parts of the world.

News of the hacking campaign targeting U.S. power companies first surfaced in June in a confidential alert to industry that described attacks on industrial firms, including nuclear plants, but did not attribute blame.

“People sort of suspected Russia was behind it, but today’s statement from the U.S. government carries a lot of weight,” said Ben Read, manager for cyber espionage analysis with cyber security company FireEye Inc.

ENGINEERS TARGETED

The campaign targeted engineers and technical staff with access to industrial controls, suggesting the hackers were interested in disrupting operations, though FireEye has seen no evidence that they actually took that step, Read said.

A former senior DHS official familiar with the government response to the campaign said that Russia’s targeting of infrastructure networks dropped off after the publication in the fall of Symantec’s research and an October government alert, which detailed technical forensics about the hacking attempts but did not name Russia.

The official declined to say whether the campaign was still ongoing or provide specifics on which targets were breached, or how close hackers may have gotten to operational control systems.

“We did not see them cross into the control networks,” DHS cyber security official Rick Driggers told reporters at a dinner on Thursday evening.

Driggers said he was unaware of any cases of control networks being compromised in the United States and that the breaches were limited to business networks. But, he added, “We know that there is intent there.”

It was not clear what Russia’s motive was. Many cyber security experts and former U.S. officials say such behavior is generally espionage-oriented with the potential, if needed, for sabotage.

Russia has shown a willingness to leverage access into energy networks for damaging effect in the past. Kremlin-linked hackers were widely blamed for two attacks on the Ukrainian energy grid in 2015 and 2016, that caused temporary blackouts for hundreds of thousands of customers and were considered first-of-their-kind assaults.

Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked the Trump administration earlier this month to provide a threat assessment gauging Russian capabilities to breach the U.S. electric grid.

It was the third time Cantwell and other senators had asked for such a review. The administration has not yet responded, a spokesman for Cantwell’s office said on Thursday.

Last July, there were news reports that the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp, which operates a nuclear plant in Kansas, had been targeted by hackers from an unknown origin.

Spokeswoman Jenny Hageman declined to say at the time if the plant had been hacked but said that there had been no operational impact to the plant because operational computer systems were separate from the corporate network. Hageman on Thursday said the company does not comment on security matters.

John Keeley, a spokesman for the industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute, said: “There has been no successful cyber attack against any U.S. nuclear facility, including Wolf Creek.”

(Reporting by Dustin Volz and Timothy Gardner, additional reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by Tom Brown, Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)

Trump budget plan to seek funds for border wall, infrastructure, opioid treatment

Copies of the President Trump's FY 2019 budget proposal are delivered to the U.S. House Budget Committee offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. February 12, 2018.

By Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will unveil his second budget on Monday, seeking to make good on his promise to bolster military spending and requesting funds for infrastructure, construction of a wall along the border with Mexico and opioid treatment programs.

The budget plan, which is viewed largely as suggestions by Congress, which has the constitutional authority to decide spending levels, will likely draw criticism from conservatives who worry that Republicans are embracing deficit spending.

The proposal will include $200 billion for infrastructure spending and more than $23 billion for border security and immigration enforcement, Mick Mulvaney, who heads the administration’s budget office, said in a statement on Sunday night.

It will also provide “for a robust and rebuilt national defense,” he said.

But the statement added that the proposal would recommend cuts that would lower the deficit by $3 trillion over 10 years.

“The budget does bend the trajectory down,” Mulvaney told the “Fox News Sunday” program earlier on Sunday. “It does move us back towards balance. It does get us away from trillion-dollar deficits.”

The budget request will be delivered to Congress only days after Trump signed off on a bipartisan spending agreement hammered out by lawmakers that will increase domestic spending by $300 billion over two years – including $165 billion in defense spending and $131 billion in non-military domestic spending.

The White House plans to amend its request to take into account the higher spending levels in the agreement that passed on Friday, a senior official in the Office of Management and Budget said.

Mulvaney said on Sunday all that money did not need to be spent.

“These are spending caps,” Mulvaney said. “They are not spending floors. You don’t have to spend all that.”

The spending deal will add to the annual budget deficit, which will now exceed $1 trillion in 2019, said the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget watchdog group.

Trump’s previous budget was criticized for recommending cuts to spending to achieve deficit reduction that ultimately even members of his own Republican Party thought were untenable.

“I hope the budget that we see is workable and recognizes the landscape we’re in,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican member of the Appropriations Committee. “A lot of times, what you have is a budget that even the Cabinet secretaries can’t defend.”

DEFICIT DEBATE

“The president’s budget is always a list of pretty good suggestions. It’s not ‘the’ budget,” said Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi.

This year’s budget is likely to stoke debates about deficits that began when Congress passed a tax overhaul in December. The tax cuts in the legislation contained no corresponding reductions in spending and instead relied on arguments that the lower rates would stoke economic growth.

Trump’s budget will include a number of economic forecasts and is expected to rely on estimates that the economy will keep growing at a rapid pace for the foreseeable future.

Such forecasts could obscure the level of deficit spending, said Robert Greenstein, president of the progressive Center for Budget Policy and Priorities.

“It’ll essentially be another budget gimmick, alongside rosy economic assumptions, to make the deficit smaller than it will actually be,” Greenstein said.

The budget proposal will include two key elements – $18 billion over two years for Trump’s long-promised border wall and $200 billion in federal funds to spur $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 10 years with state, local and private partners, Mulvaney’s statement said.

Trump promised during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the border wall, which the Mexican government has insisted it will not do.

Democrats oppose the wall, which Trump has said is aimed at keeping out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

The budget will also seek some $13 billion in new funding over the next two years to combat the opioid epidemic.

In addition, it will request $85.5 billion for veterans’ health, the administration said.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Katanga Johnson; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)

UK defence minister says Russia looking to cause thousands of deaths in Britain

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with employees during a visit to the Gorbunov Aviation factory in Kazan, Russia January 25, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s defence minister warned that Russia was looking to damage the British economy by attacking its infrastructure, a move he said could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths”, The Telegraph newspaper reported.

Relations between Russia and Britain are strained. Prime Minister Theresa May last year accused Moscow of military aggression and in December, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said there was evidence showing Russian meddling in Western elections.

Britain has also scrambled jets in recent months to intercept Russian jets near the United Kingdom’s airspace.

“The plan for the Russians won’t be for landing craft to appear in the South Bay in Scarborough, and off Brighton Beach,” defence minister Gavin Williamson, tipped as a possible successor to May, was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

“What they are looking at doing is they are going to be thinking ‘How can we just cause so much pain to Britain?’. Damage its economy, rip its infrastructure apart, actually cause thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths, but actually have an element of creating total chaos within the country.”

The Kremlin, which under Vladimir Putin has clawed back some of the global influence lost when the Soviet Union collapsed, has denied meddling in elections in the West. It says anti-Russian hysteria is sweeping through the United States and Europe.

Williamson said Russia was look at ways to attack Britain.

“Why would they keep photographing and looking at power stations, why are they looking at the interconnectors that bring so much electricity and so much energy into our country,” he was quoted as saying.

“If you could imagine the domestic and industrial chaos that this would actually cause. What they would do is cause the chaos and then step back.”

“This is the real threat that I believe the country is facing at the moment,” he said.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Friday that Williamson’s comments showed he had lost his understanding of what was reasonable, RIA news agency reported.

“It is likely he has lost his grasp on reason,” RIA quoted ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Stephen Addison)

Schumer calls on Trump to appoint official to oversee Puerto Rico relief

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) departs after a full-Senate briefing by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Charles Schumer, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, called on President Donald Trump on Sunday to name a single official to oversee and coordinate relief efforts in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Schumer, along with Representatives Nydia Velàzquez and Jose Serrano, said a “CEO of response and recovery” is needed to manage the complex and ongoing federal response in the territory, where millions of Americans remain without power and supplies.

In a statement, Schumer said the current federal response to Hurricane Maria’s impact on the island had been “disorganized, slow-footed and mismanaged.”

“This person will have the ability to bring all the federal agencies together, cut red tape on the public and private side, help turn the lights back on, get clean water flowing and help bring about recovery for millions of Americans who have gone too long in some of the worst conditions,” he said.

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

The Democrats contended that naming a lone individual to manage the government’s relief efforts was critical, particularly given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is already stretched thin from dealing with other crises, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the wildfires in California.

The severity of the Puerto Rico crisis, where a million people do not have clean water and millions are without power nearly a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, demand a single person to focus exclusively on relief and recovery, the Democrats said.

Forty-nine people have died in Puerto Rico officially, with dozens more missing. The hurricane did extensive damage to the island’s power grid, destroying homes, roads and other vital infrastructure. Now, the bankrupt territory is struggling to provide basic services like running water, and pay its bills.

“It’s tragically clear this Administration was caught flat footed when Maria hit Puerto Rico,” said Velàzquez. “Appointing a CEO of Response and Recovery will, at last, put one person with authority in charge to manage the response and ensure we are finally getting the people of Puerto Rico the aid they need.”

On Thursday, Trump said the federal response has been a “10” on a scale of one to 10 at a meeting with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello.

The governor has asked the White House and Congress for at least $4.6 billion in block grants and other types of funding.

Senator Marco Rubio called on Congress to modify an $18.7 billion aid package for areas damaged by a recent swath of hurricanes to ensure that Puerto Rico can quickly access the funds.

 

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Diane Craft)

 

White House wants to help states, cities offload infrastructure

FILE PHOTO: An automobile travels in a carpool lane along the highway system into Los Angeles, California, U.S. August 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration told state and local officials on Wednesday that it will use its infrastructure plan to create incentives for the private sector to finance or take over public entities like bridges, tunnels and highways.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told about 150 transportation officials at the White House the administration wants the private sector to play a bigger role in managing and financing public infrastructure.

Mulvaney said the administration wants to give states and cities “incentives to move stuff you might own off of your books and into the private sector.”

He said that would result in states and cities “getting more money to do new stuff.”

The administration has said it wants to spend $200 billion on infrastructure over 10 years, an amount the administration hopes will encourage another $800 billion in infrastructure investment by the private sector, but has not offered a detailed plan. The administration will need congressional approval, and some members of Congress in both parties do not expect to take up the issue until 2018.

“The largest piece of the package is going to be wrapped around incentives,” Mulvaney said.

He said the incentives will work well in densely populated urban areas in airport, bridge, tunnel, port and other projects. It is harder for rural areas to have private sector-backed projects, citing the lack of potential “cash flow,” Mulvaney said. For example, a bridge in a rural area would have less traffic and potentially less likely be a candidate for private funding.

He said the administration plans to target some funds solely for rural infrastructure projects that may not work as private sector-backed projects.

Chao said the plan is not yet final but said states and cities that secure some private-sector financing “will be given higher-priority access to new federal funds.”

Democrats want more direct federal spending. Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer has pointed out that the Trump budget unveiled in May cuts $206 billion in infrastructure spending across several Cabinet departments, including $96 billion in planned highway trust fund spending.

“$200 billion is a lot – but it is not $5 trillion, so you still want to be smart with it,” Mulvaney said.

The three-prong infrastructure plan will also include backing for big “transformative” projects, Mulvaney said. Trump wants to look at new ways to build bridges, tunnels and ports.

“The president is very interested in trying to find that transformative, infrastructure technology, that is this close to being ready for market,” Mulvaney said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)