U.S. eviction bans are ending. That could worsen the spread of coronavirus

By Michelle Conlin

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Last month, as the coronavirus was surging in Houston, recently unemployed hospital secretary Ramzan Boudoin got more bad news: She had six days to vacate her apartment for failing to pay the rent.

A Texas ban on evictions had enabled Boudoin to keep the two-bedroom place she shared with her daughter and granddaughter while she searched for another job. But that moratorium expired on May 18. The landlord took legal action and Boudoin couldn’t come up with $2,997 plus interest to settle the judgment.

So this month Boudoin, 46, packed her family into a 2008 Nissan compact and headed to New Orleans, where she moved in with her mother and her sister’s family. In all, nine people share the packed three-bedroom house. Bedouin said her mother suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a lung illness that makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 in a city where cases are rising at an alarming pace.

“Every minute, we are worried someone is going to give it to her,” Boudoin said.

As the coronavirus began to shut down large swaths of the U.S. economy in March, spiraling millions of Americans into unemployment, a patchwork of state and federal eviction bans were enacted to keep people in their homes. Now those protections are vanishing. Moratoriums have already expired in 29 states and are about to lapse in others. On Friday, a federal stay, which protects roughly one-third of American renters who live in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government, will run out unless Congress acts fast.

As many as 28 million people could be evicted in coming months, according to Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University who is the co-creator of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a national research center on evictions. That’s nearly triple the estimated 10 million Americans who lost their homes during the years after the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Public health and housing experts say such a massive displacement of renters would be unprecedented in modern history. In addition to the hardship that comes with losing one’s home, they say, the evictions could lead to a second-wave public health crisis as the newly homeless are forced into shelters or tight quarters with relatives, increasing the risk of spread of COVID-19.

Evictions have resumed in cities including Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, according to data compiled by Princeton University at its Eviction Lab. No single, comprehensive source exists to track U.S. evictions nationwide.

In Milwaukee, eviction filings dropped to nearly zero after Wisconsin instituted an emergency 60-day ban on evictions on March 27. But after that order was lifted May 26, evictions surged past their pre-pandemic levels. Milwaukee recorded 1,966 eviction filings in the seven weeks following the ban’s expiration, an 89% increase from 1,038 notices filed in the seven weeks leading up to the moratorium, the Princeton data show.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician and the medical director for infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said it’s impossible at this point to establish a scientific correlation between evictions and COVID-19 spread and deaths; diagnosed coronavirus cases are up 150% in Milwaukee, for example, since the eviction moratorium ended.

What is not in doubt among public health experts, she said, is that evictions are dangerous during a pandemic. “A key tenet of prevention in a pandemic is to have the infrastructure that will minimize transmission from person to person,” Safdar said. “Any activity that breaks down that structure … makes containment of a pandemic exceedingly difficult.”

A July 17 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that in 44 U.S. cities and counties, eviction filings by landlords have almost returned to their usual levels in places where moratoriums have expired, or where bans were never enacted.

That study said evicted tenants are “at greater risk of contracting, spreading and suffering complications from COVID-19” because precariously housed people often are unable to shelter in place, and because they tend to use crowded emergency rooms for their primary medical care.

As evictions rise in some coronavirus hot spots, displaced families are doubling up with relatives or moving into shelters, creating conditions for the virus to spread widely, according to Diane Yentel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S.’s premiere affordable housing policy group.

“In these cases where social distancing is difficult or impossible, the likelihood of them contracting and spreading coronavirus increases exponentially,” Yentel said.

A fragile safety net is adding to the strain. Enhanced $600 weekly unemployment benefits provided by the federal government are set to evaporate next week, at a time when the national unemployment rate is 13.3%.

Landlords say the pandemic is a crisis for them as well. Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, says eviction is always a “last resort,” but “the rental housing industry alone cannot bear the financial burden of the pandemic.”

He said nearly half the country’s landlords are mom-and pop operators who have invested in rental property for retirement income.

COVID POSITIVE, AND FACING EVICTION

For weeks, eviction courts across America were shuttered due to COVID-19. Now, over Zoom, conference calls and even in person in some places, proceedings are ramping up again.

In Houston’s Harris County, more than 5,100 eviction cases have been filed since the virus upended the U.S. economy in March, according to data compiled by Houston-based data science firm January Advisors.

That’s still roughly half of pre-pandemic levels. But it’s worrisome to public health advocates given that Harris County has seen confirmed coronavirus cases jump 500% since Texas’s eviction ban was lifted May 18, the Reuters COVID tracker shows.

Swapnil Agarwal is the 39-year-old founder of Nitya Capital, one of the largest landlords in Texas and owner of the Providence at Champions Apartment Homes from which Boudoin was evicted. During the pandemic, the company has filed more than 120 eviction notices against renters in Houston, a Reuters review of court records found. Houston-based Nitya has $2 billion in real estate assets under management, according to its website.

Agarwal said his firm evicted Boudoin because she was behind on her rent and “we realized that there was no intention to pay,” an allegation she disputes. He said Nitya has gone to great lengths to keep tenants in place and has provided $4 million in rent assistance to those who lost their jobs.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Mariah Smith was served an eviction notice on July 1. A shipping clerk for an aircraft parts maker, she lost her job in May. Smith said she hasn’t been able to pay her rent because she never received her $1,200 federal stimulus check and is still waiting to receive unemployment benefits.

Her fortunes have only gotten worse. Smith, 25, last week was diagnosed with coronavirus after experiencing chills, body aches and a sore throat. She said just walking leaves her winded.

On Thursday, she faces a court hearing on her eviction. Nick Homan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, agreed to help. He said he’s handling around 25 eviction cases a week now, more than double his typical load.

After Reuters contacted Smith’s landlord — a limited liability company named LPT 46 — an attorney representing the firm, Marvin Bynum II, said the company just learned of Smith’s COVID diagnosis. “The landlord is hopeful that Ms. Smith recovers soon, and is confident the parties can swiftly reach a mutually amicable resolution,” Bynum said.

Homan said he’ll see what happens Thursday, but the larger issue remains.

“There’s nobody in any position of authority to stop eviction right now,” Homan said. “I don’t see anybody making decisions on public health. I only see landlords making decisions about their finances.”

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Marla Dickerson)

Trump says sending federal agents to more U.S. cities to fight violent crime

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump announced a plan on Wednesday to send federal agents to more U.S. cities to crack down on violent crime as he emphasizes a “law and order” mantra going into the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Trump, joined by Attorney General William Barr, unveiled an expansion of the “Operation Legend” program to include cities such as Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a further effort by federal officials to tackle violence.

“Today I’m announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” said Trump.

Trump said “we have no choice but to get involved” with a rising death toll in some major cities.

“This bloodshed must end, this bloodshed will end,” he said.

The program involves deploying federal law enforcement agents to assist local police in combating what the Justice Department has described as a “surge” of violent crime.

A Justice Department official said the initiative is not related to the use of federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to quell unrest in Portland, Oregon.

The Republican president has sharply criticized Democratic leaders for presiding over cities and states that are experiencing crime waves, using the issue as part of a “law and order” push he hopes will resonate with his political base. Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in national opinion polls.

It is not unusual for federal law enforcement to work alongside local partners. The Justice Department official said “Operation Legend” would provide additional resources to cities suffering from “traditional” violent crime.

Trump has emphasized a robust policing and military approach to the protests across the United States about racial inequality after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

The White House has sought to focus on city crime even as Trump’s approval numbers plummet in response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The “Operation Legend” program involves federal agents form the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies, partnering with local law enforcement.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said federal intervention was not required to help with violence in New York City, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also urged Trump not to send unidentified federal agents to her city.

“Operation Legend” is named for LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed while he slept early June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri, according to the Department of Justice’s website.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Tornadoes rip through Kansas after one killed, scores hurt by Ohio twisters

A man named Luther cleans up his driveway of debris after a tornado touched down overnight in city of Trotwood near Dayton, Ohio, U.S. May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

BROOKVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) – Several tornadoes reportedly touched down on Tuesday evening in Kansas to damage homes, uproot trees and rip down power lines, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

About 20 tornadoes, including a large rain-wrapped twister near Kansas City, were reported to the NWS by storm chasers and spotters as news broadcast images of roofs torn off homes and roads scattered with debris and tree limbs.

“The house took a pretty good beating … but the main thing is that we are all safe,” homeowner Brian Perry told 41 Action News in Kansas City. “It was pretty wild, never been through anything like it in my life.”

The extent of the damage was unclear and there were no reports of fatalities or injuries.

The Kansas City International Airport said on Twitter that travelers found shelter in parking garage tunnels as the storms passed by the airfield. The airport later said it was closed as crews cleared debris.

The latest wave of tornadoes came a day after a spate of twisters pulverized buildings in western Ohio, killing one person, injuring scores and triggering a recovery effort in neighborhoods strewn with wreckage.

An 81-year-old man was killed in Celina, a small city 65 miles (105 km) north of Dayton, after a tornado sent a vehicle crashing into his home, Mayor Jeffrey Hazel told a news conference.

More than 300 tornadoes have ravaged the U.S. Midwest in the last two weeks, during an unusual onslaught of extreme weather.

The tornado in Celina, which touched down late on Monday, was at least an EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, packing wind speeds of 136 mph to 165 mph (219 kph to 266 kph), said Patrick Marsh, a meteorologist at the federal Storm Prediction Center.

The storm injured seven people in Celina, three of them seriously, Hazel said, and about 40 homes there were seriously damaged or destroyed.

Two tornadoes categorized as EF3 or stronger also struck late on Monday near Dayton, including one just south of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Marsh said. An EF3 is just two scales lower than the most intense tornado possible, an EF5.

Damaged property is seen after a tornado in Lawrence, Kansas, U.S. in this still from a video taken May 28, 2019 obtained from social media. LOUIS CORTEZ /via REUTERS

Damaged property is seen after a tornado in Lawrence, Kansas, U.S. in this still from a video taken May 28, 2019 obtained from social media. LOUIS CORTEZ /via REUTERS

‘LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN’

Sue Taulbee, 71, was watching television in her bed in the Dayton suburb of Brookville when she heard an approaching twister.

“They say it’s like a freight train: That’s what I heard,” she recalled on Tuesday afternoon. She hid at the foot of the bed. Flying debris smashed her window and she was soon trapped as her home collapsed around her.

“It was only a couple of minutes, but it seemed like an hour,” she said as she sat in her yard, surrounded by her scattered possessions.

“I just started screaming and my neighbors heard me and said, ‘Sue! Sue! I hear you! We’re coming! We’re coming!'”

They pulled her out through a hole and brought her to a hospital to treat a cut on her head, she said.

After the twisters, Ohio Department of Transportation crews used snow plows to clear highways of debris.

The risk of more tornadoes continued into the night on Tuesday in some Midwest states and the mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and southern New York, Marsh said.

‘THROWN AROUND’

Nearly 80 people in and around Dayton went to hospitals with injuries, said Elizabeth Long, a spokeswoman for the Kettering Health Network.

“We’ve had injuries ranging from lacerations to bumps and bruises from folks being thrown around in their houses due to the storms,” Long said.

The flurry of hundreds of tornadoes that has recently struck the Midwest was caused by the interaction of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, a strong jet stream and a weather front that has been locked in place, said Alex Lamers, a meteorologist with the federal Weather Prediction Center.

Joseph Taulbee, 21, Allyson Smith, 25, and Danielle,Taulbee, 24, work to collect memorabilia from their grandmother’s damaged house after a tornado touched down overnight in Brookville, near Dayton, Ohio, U.S. May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

Nearly 55,000 homes and businesses in Ohio were without power on Tuesday, according to the PowerOutage.US tracking service, and officials advised people to boil water after water plants and pumps halted.

The latest storm follows tornadoes and floods that killed at least three people in Missouri and six people in Oklahoma during the previous week, including two in El Reno on Saturday.

Unexpected pipeline outages and refinery shutdowns over the past week – in part caused by bad weather in the U.S. Midwest – have roiled cash markets for both crude oil and refined products, traders said.

Rainfall could trigger flash flooding on Tuesday evening in parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, said Brian Hurley, a senior meteorologist at the federal Weather Prediction Center.

(This story corrects dateline and name of Dayton suburb in paragraph 12 to Brookville, not Brookline)

(Reporting by Kyle Grillot in Brookville, Ohio; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Grant McCool and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. south ‘still under the gun’ after deadly storms

A storm cloud formation is seen in Collinsville, Oklahoma, U.S., May 20, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media on May 21, 2019. BRI'ANNE WALTON/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A storm system that blasted the U.S. South was weakening on Tuesday but another was on its way after thunderstorms and tornadoes left a swath of destruction, killed at least two people and tore up a NASCAR grandstand.

More than 30 tornadoes struck on Monday and Tuesday from Texas, Oklahoma and across the southern plains into Missouri, said meteorologists with the National Weather Service.

While this weakening storm system is expected to roll into the Great Lakes region early Wednesday, another system is brewing Wednesday night into Thursday, said Brian Hurley, a forecaster with the NWS Weather Prediction Center.

“The Southern Plains can’t catch a break,” Hurley said. “More storms will develop overnight into Thursday morning.”

Rainfalls are predicted to be about 2 inches across eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and into western Missouri, with localized spots getting up to 5 inches, he said.

“That whole area is still under the gun,” Hurley said.

In Wheatland, Missouri, at the Lucas Oil Speedway, a reported tornado injured 7 people, flipped over cars, toppled campers and damaged the grandstands, with local media images showing piles of twisted metal and upside down vehicles.

The Memorial Day weekend “Lucas Oil Show-Me 100” races at the speedway, about 120 miles southeast of Kansas City, were canceled indefinitely. A crowd topping 3,000 fans of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) had been expected, track officials said on Tuesday.

Dozens of people were rescued from rising floodwaters and felled trees that smashed homes and blocked roadways in Oklahoma on Tuesday.

Crews using boats pulled at least 50 people from rising water as heavy downpours inundated roads and homes, Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Keli Cain said.

Two deaths from a traffic accident on a rain-slicked Missouri highway were reported by police late Monday.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for the state, out of concern for floods from cresting rivers and streams, with forecasts of more rain on the way.

Forecasters said the Missouri River is expected to crest on Thursday at more than 32 feet at the state capital of Jefferson City. Local media including NBC News said that is two feet higher than the city’s levees.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Graff)

More floods loom as high river waters recede in Midwest

FILE PHOTO - The Kansas side of the Missouri River is seen in Atchison, Kansas, U.S., March 22, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. SHAWN RIZZA/via REUTERS

By Karen Dillon

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Reuters) – Record floods that submerged parts of three Midwestern states bringing death and destruction were retreating in Kansas City on Monday but icy tributaries in Montana and the Dakotas threatened more floods for weeks to come, the National Weather Service said.

High flood waters have already returned in the western Dakotas, northwest Nebraska and central and eastern Montana, along smaller rivers that feed into the Missouri, David Roth, a meteorologist with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said on Monday.

Warmer weather makes the once solid river ice break-up into giant chunks, like mini-icebergs, Roth said.

“The ice floats down river until it bunches up in what we call an ice-jam, like a dam, causing flooding,” he said.

“All that backed-up water is eventually going downstream,” Roth said. “It’ll come down the Missouri in a couple of weeks, and maybe hit Kansas City in mid-April.”

Midwest floods were unleashed last week after a “bomb cyclone” storm dumped torrential rains on hundreds of square miles (km) of the snow-covered Plains.

The record flows cascaded down the Missouri, the country’s longest river, killing at least four people, drowning livestock and closing dozens of roads in Nebraska and Iowa. Property losses were estimated at more than $3 billion in those two states.

Those flood waters crested near Kansas City on Sunday, the weather service said.

No further precipitation is forecast for the Midwest until midweek, when moderate rainfall is expected, NWS’s Andrew Orrison said Sunday.

“I think at the worst what it will do is just prolong the gradual receding of the water levels across the various river basins throughout the Midwest.”

The current flooding threatens Kansas City’s drinking water. More than 600,000 customers in the Kansas City metropolitan area were asked to conserve water as flood-levels in the Missouri River created “treatment challenges,” the city’s water utility said on Sunday.

But far up the nation’s longest river, floods loom again.

The Billings Gazette reported late Sunday that rapid snow melt drove ice jams on the Little Bighorn River, forced the shutdown of a stretches of major highways in eastern Montanta all the way to the Wyoming border.

But the bigger threat is warmer temperatures that will hit the upper 60s in Billings by Tuesday and into midweek, driving more snowmelt that will eventually flow south, said meteorologist Roth.

“All that water is still headed downstream,” he said.

(Reporting by Karen Dillon; Additional reporting and writing by Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Peter Szekely and Andrew Hay, Editing by William Maclean)

Amid U.S. Midwest flooding, residents in Missouri, Kansas rush to fill sandbags

Buildings are submereged in floodwater in Bellevue, Nebraska, U.S., March 20, 2019, in this still imgage taken from social media. Bellevue (Nebraska) Police Department via REUTERS

By Karen Dillon

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Reuters) – Floodwaters that devastated swaths of Nebraska and Iowa rolled downstream along America’s longest river on Thursday, swamping more Midwestern farmland as waterfront communities in Missouri and Kansas hurried to shore up strained levees.

Flooding of the Missouri River triggered by last week’s so-called “bomb cyclone” storm has already inflicted damage estimated at nearly $1.5 billion in Nebraska, killed at least four people in Nebraska and Iowa and left a man missing below Nebraska’s collapsed Spencer Dam.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson declared a state of emergency for his state as high water forced evacuations of several small farm communities. Larger towns from St. Joseph to Kansas City braced for additional flooding forecast through the weekend.

“The rising floodwaters are affecting more Missouri communities and farms, closing more roads and threatening levees, water treatment plants and other critical infrastructure,” Parson said in a statement.

A truck is submereged in floodwater in Bellevue, Nebraska, U.S., March 21, 2019, in this still imgage taken from social media. Bellevue (Nebraska) Police Department via REUTERS

A truck is submereged in floodwater in Bellevue, Nebraska, U.S., March 21, 2019, in this still imgage taken from social media. Bellevue (Nebraska) Police Department via REUTERS

The declaration allows state resources and assistance to be provided directly to counties and municipalities in need, said Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Public Safety Department.

Authorities say continued flooding in the days ahead is unlikely to reach the widespread, catastrophic scale seen in Nebraska and Iowa – as excess flow dissipates along the length of the river and water breaches or flows over the tops of levees.

But the threat of extensive flooding lingers over the wider region through May and could grow dire in coming weeks with additional rainfall and melting snow runoff, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said on Thursday.

“This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk,” Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said on Thursday in the agency’s spring outlook.

Scientists said on Thursday that climate change played a hand in the deadly floods, while a Trump administration official said more study was needed before making that link.

LEVEE BREACHES

Floodwaters have already swamped large stretches of Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa, drowning livestock and damaging crop land along the Missouri. A state of emergency has been declared in all or parts of the three Midwestern farm states.

The river’s next major flood crest is forecast to hit St. Joseph, Missouri, early Friday morning and a day later in Kansas City, Missouri, 55 miles (90 km) to the south.

With no more rain forecast until next weekend, authorities hope flood levels will abate. Still, the inundation has strained the system of dams and levees built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the region.

More than 40 levee breaches have been confirmed in the agency’s Omaha district, encompassing the hardest-hit parts of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, officials told a news briefing.

A herd of cattle isolated by historic flooding across the state is seen in this aerial photo taken during Operation Prairie Hay Drop, where Nebraska Army National Guard Soldiers used a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to deliver hay to isolated group of cattle in Richland, Nebraska, U.S., March 20, 2019. Courtesy Lisa Crawford/Nebraska National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

A herd of cattle isolated by historic flooding across the state is seen in this aerial photo taken during Operation Prairie Hay Drop, where Nebraska Army National Guard Soldiers used a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to deliver hay to isolated group of cattle in Richland, Nebraska, U.S., March 20, 2019. Courtesy Lisa Crawford/Nebraska National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

Nine more instances of levee breaches and spillovers have occurred farther downstream in Missouri and Kansas, including one near St. Joseph that was last topped in 1993, said Jud Kneuvean, the Corps’ emergency management chief in Kansas City.

The disaster’s epicenter had shifted by Thursday to northwestern Missouri, where roughly 40,000 acres of farmland in Holt County alone was under water and a population of about 500 was at risk, Kneuvean said.

The Holt County farming town of Craig, home to about 250 people, was evacuated. So too were some 200 residents of Lewis and Clark Village in neighboring Buchanan County after a nearby levee failed, officials said.

In Forest City, downstream from Craig in Holt County, residents young and old hurried to fill sandbags to bolster their local levee, hoping to stave off disaster.

“This is our last line of defense,” South Holt County Assistant Fire Chief Bill Killin told area media.

TRUMP APPROVES FEDERAL FUNDING

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday approved a disaster declaration for Nebraska, making federal funding available in nine counties there that bore the brunt of last week’s floods.

More than 2,400 homes and businesses in Nebraska have been destroyed or damaged, with 200 miles (320 km) of roads unusable and 11 bridges wiped out, according to authorities.

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts estimated the floods caused at least $439 million in damage to public infrastructure and other assets, and $85 million to private property. He put agricultural flood damage for the state at nearly $1 billion.

Mark Hamilton, 59, a retired military officer, has lived in a mobile home in Arlington, Nebraska, for the last 23 years but was forced to flee when it flooded. He said he lost his house, motorcycle and truck at a total cost of about $150,000.

“We’ve had floods nine, 10 years ago, but it was nothing like this,” Hamilton said. “That entire trailer park needs to be removed now; nobody can live there.”

(Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Missouri River towns face deluge as floods move downstream

A flooded parcel of land along the Platte River is pictured in this aerial photograph at La Platte, south of Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Drone Base

By Humeyra Pamuk

VALLEY, Neb. (Reuters) – A string of small Missouri towns prepared for the next deluge along the raging Missouri River on Wednesday after flooding wreaked nearly $1.5 billion in damage in Nebraska, killing at least four people and leaving another man missing.

High water unleashed by last week’s late-winter storm and melting snow has already inundated a large swath of Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa along the Missouri River, North America’s longest river. States of emergency have been declared in all or parts of the three Midwestern farm states.

The Missouri River’s next major flood crest was forecast to hit St. Joseph, Missouri, at 6 a.m. on Friday and Kansas City, Missouri, 55 miles (88 km) to the south, about 24 hours later, said Mike Glasch of the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Homeowners and businesses across Leavenworth County, Missouri, where 81,000 people were under a flood warning on Wednesday, were placing sandbags around property as they have watched the river rise over the last few days, Kim Buchanan, the county’s deputy director of emergency management, told Reuters.

“We have moderate flooding at this time,” she said, noting that the forecast shows the river cresting seven feet above flood stage on Thursday or Friday. “Anybody with river interest has already instigated their flood plans and have taken their defensive actions.”

FOUR DEAD

The floods killed four people in Nebraska and Iowa since last week, and officials warned the damage toll would rise as receding waters revealed more devastated roadways, bridges and homes.

A fifth man has been missing since the collapse of the Spencer Dam along the Niobrara River last. He was identified by the Omaha World-Herald newspaper as Kenny Angel.

Authorities said they had rescued nearly 300 people in Nebraska alone.

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit in flood waters after leaving casualities and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, with waters yet to crest in parts of the U.S. midwest, in Peru, Nebraska, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Karen Dillon

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit in flood waters after leaving casualities and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, with waters yet to crest in parts of the U.S. midwest, in Peru, Nebraska, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Karen Dillon

A levee break prompted the evacuation of the small community of Craig, Missouri. Real estate agent Jamie Barnes said everyone in town had time to get out before it was flooded, and water was now flowing south through farmland toward communities such as Forest City, Forbes and St Joseph.

“There’s just water as far as the eye can see, from bluff to bluff. In some places its five miles, in some 15,” Barnes said by phone.

Several other communities in that area of northwest Missouri have also been evacuated, the Army Corps of Engineers said at a briefing.

“Much of the levee system remains compromised, and as of noon Wednesday there are more than 30 total breaches across the system,” in the three states experiencing flooding, Lieutenant Colonel James Startzell, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District told the briefing.

AIR FORCE BASE FLOODED

“I was driving out to get one more load of corn from the bins when the levee broke, and there was a wall of water coming at me,” said Howard Geib, 54, whose farm is near Craig. “I was on the phone with my son-in-law, who was driving out to help, telling him, ‘Stop! Stop! Turn around!'”

The flooding killed livestock, destroyed grains in storage and cut off access to farms because of road and rail damage.

Across the Missouri from Craig, the village of Rulo, Nebraska, drew a small crowd of onlookers to see the deluge, said Kelly Klepper, owner of Wild Bill’s Bar & Grill.

“We’re kind of a tourist attraction right now,” Klepper said by phone.

Missouri emergency managers said they may be spared the worst of the flooding because of breaches further north.

“It’s really sad that we had a couple levies fail upstream, but that’s helped everyone downstream,” said Steven Bean of Kansas City’s emergency management agency.

But Bean said the kind of flooding hitting the Midwest is typically seen in June and July, after the final snow-melt and the spring rains.

“This is March, and we haven’t had the final snowmelt,” he said. “We haven’t had the spring rains. The reservoir is full. They have got to get it empty.”

More than 2,400 Nebraska homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged, with 200 miles (322 km) of roads unusable and 11 bridges wiped out, Governor Pete Ricketts said on Wednesday.

Ricketts estimated the floods caused at least $439 million in damage to public infrastructure and other assets and $85 million to privately owned assets. He put flood damage for the state’s agricultural sector at nearly $1 billion.

Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, which houses the U.S. Strategic Command, remained heavily flooded, though base officials said on Twitter the facility was still “mission-capable.”

In Valley, Nebraska, outside Omaha, Pete Smock, 42, worked to clear deep mud surrounding his home and construction business.

“Devastation is everywhere. I haven’t seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Smock said. He had rented heavy equipment to fill deep holes cut by the floods with gravel and repair driveways leading to his office and garage.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, P.J. Huffstutter and Mark Weinraub in Chicago, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Andrew Hay in Taos, N.M. and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alistair Bell)

Ten-year-old boy on Kansas City waterslide died of neck injury

A general view of the Verruckt waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kansas

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – The 10-year-old son of a state lawmaker died of a neck injury while riding the world’s tallest water slide in Kansas City, Kansas, police said on Monday.

Caleb Thomas Schwab died on Sunday at the Schlitterbahn waterpark on the Verrückt water slide, which sends riders plunging down 17 stories at up to 50 miles an hour (80 kph).

He was riding with two women on a raft, Kansas City police said in a statement.

Police and fire officials rushed to the scene after a report of an emergency and found the boy “dead from a fatal neck injury at the end of the ride, in the pool,” the statement said.

The two women on the raft suffered minor injuries to their faces and were hospitalized, it said.

The ride is more than 168 feet (51.4 meters) high, making it taller than the Statue of Liberty from torch to the top of its pedestal. The ride’s name means “insane” in German.

Park officials said in a statement that Schlitterbahn Kansas City would remain closed at least until Wednesday, while the slide would be shut down during the course of the investigation.

Police and a park spokeswoman declined to give additional details about the child’s death, including whether the child met the ride’s height requirement of 54 inches (1.37 meters) or whether the three riders and the raft met the weight requirement.

Schwab was the son of Kansas State Representative Scott Schwab, who said in a statement the family was devastated.

“Caleb was an incredible young man,” the family’s pastor, Clint Sprague, told a news conference. He was “full of life, loved baseball, basketball, soccer. He was always doing something.”

The Verrückt water slide is the tallest in the world, according to Guinness World Records. The park postponed the 2014 opening of the slide three times to ensure safety.

Kansas state Senator Pat Pettey said the tragedy occurred during the park’s “elected officials day” and that she was at the site.

Pettey said in a telephone interview she left the park before the incident that led to the boy’s death. She said relatives of hers who stayed at the park had seen blood on the slide.

Under Kansas law, the state Department of Labor has jurisdiction over amusement parks, which must inspect their rides every 12 months with state officials authorized to conduct random inspections.

The incident will likely lead to a discussion in the state legislature about how water parks are regulated, she said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Bernard Orr and Paul Tait)

Police captain shot and killed in Kansas City, Kansas

(Reuters) – A Kansas City, Kansas, police captain was shot and killed on Tuesday as he tried to reach a suspect, authorities said.

Police Captain Robert Melton had responded to a report of several people in a vehicle shooting at a man, police said in a statement.

Three or four people in the car ran when police arrived. Melton “attempted to make contact” with a suspect and was shot, the statement said.

Melton was taken to a hospital and died of his injuries, it said. Two people were in custody and one suspect was still at large.

National attention has been focused on attacks on law enforcement officers following the ambush killings of eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Officer Buys Diapers, Shoes for Mom of 6 Caught Shoplifting

When Sarah Robinson of Kansas City, Kanasa was caught shoplifting at a Walmart store after running out of diapers for her 2-year-old daughter, she feared going to jail and the loss of her family.

“My heart just dropped. I didn’t know what to say or do. It was horrible. I thought I was going to jail,” said Robinson.

Instead, she ran into an angel wearing a badge.

Officer Mark Engravalle of the Roeland Park Police Department arrived at the Walmart after answering the shoplifting call.  As he spoke to Robinson, the officer noticed that some of her children were not wearing shoes.  It led him to ask about her situation rather than what she was doing inside the store.

“He noticed [what she stole] were necessities like diapers, shoes for the kids, some clothing,” John Demoss, Roeland Park public information officer, told ABC News. “He asked her what the situation was, and she broke down crying.”

Officer Engravalle had to do his job but instead of arresting and taking Robinson to the station, he gave her a citation for misdemeanor threat.  Then he walked back into the Walmart.  He bought diapers, baby wipes and clothes for the children.

“The officer had two children of his own, and he thought of his two kids,” Demoss said. “He thought it was the right thing to do.”

“He couldn’t have been nicer to my girls,” Robinson said. “And then I got a call the next day saying they wanted to help us further and help us get a place to live.”

Two local radio stations then stepped up to raise items for the family.  One station collected over $6,000 in items for the family.