Special Report: In Louisiana jail, deaths mount as mental health pleas unheeded

The outside of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is seen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Melissa Fares and Charles Levinson

EAST BATON ROUGE, La. (Reuters) – The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, a squat brick building with low-slung ceilings and walls sometimes smeared with feces, is the face of a paradigm shift: penitentiaries as mental health care providers. Across the United States thousands of jails are sheltering a wave of inmates accused of crimes and serving time while suffering from illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

The shift is a byproduct of the plunging numbers housed in psychiatric inpatient treatment centers, a total that fell from 471,000 in 1970 to 170,000 by 2014. In Louisiana, the fallout exacerbated after a former governor shuttered or privatized a network of public hospitals that provided medical and psychiatric care to the accused.

East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is where Louis Jonathan Fano, afflicted with bipolar disorder and haunted by demons, found himself on Halloween Eve 2016 after fleeing a Greyhound Bus and wandering city streets naked and crazed.

Booked into the jail on six misdemeanor charges, Fano, 27, slit his wrists hours later. Then he was sent to solitary confinement, where he spent 92 of his 94 days imprisoned with his thoughts.

Midway through his jail ordeal, the parish handed responsibility for inmate medical care to a for-profit firm that decided Fano was “exaggerating his condition.” On January 18, 2017, it ordered him taken off his antipsychotic medication.

Two weeks later, the onetime veterinary student, who crafted letters to his mother in longhand, hanged himself.

His family rushed from California to find him unconscious in a hospital intensive care unit, where he lay until his death.

“We touched his cold hands. I talked to him but he had no life – it was just machines,” said his mother, Maria Olga Zavala. “Even with all that, they had him there handcuffed with a guard.”

Replaying that image inside her Southern California home, she asked: “Why wasn’t that guard in the jail, looking after my son before he took his own life?”

It’s a question asked often of the parish jail, where 25 inmates died from 2012-2016, at least five of whom were diagnosed with a serious mental illness or showed signs of one, jail and court records show. Fano became the sixth inmate since 2012 to die amid a mental health crisis; none had been convicted of the charges that jailed them.

From 2012 to 2016, the jail’s rate of death was 2.5 times above the national prison average, a Reuters analysis found. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, blamed most deaths on drug use, “poor health and pre-existing conditions,” and noted Louisiana has long ranked low on public health metrics.

A private consultant hired to assess treatment found the jail was substantially understaffed, with 61 percent of the psychiatric staff hours found in comparable jails. Isolation units, transformed into de facto inpatient mental health wards, were “woefully inadequate physical environments for the most unstable mentally ill.”

Men on suicide watch were given paper gowns and no sheets or blankets, but the unit was kept so cold some inmates risked hypothermia. One sought warmth by squeezing himself inside the plastic covering of his mattress.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is a vivid example of how local jails struggle to treat the masses of mentally ill filling their dank cells.

MENTALLY ILL AND INCARCERATED

Had a naked and hallucinating Fano stumbled off the Greyhound Bus a few years earlier, he likely would have received treatment at Baton Rouge’s Earl K. Long charity hospital. In the two years before its closure in April 2013, police brought 1,800 mentally disturbed detainees there for treatment, said Jan Kasofsky, Baton Rouge’s top mental health official.

Earl K. Long was part of Louisiana’s network of 10 public charity hospitals that provided medical and psychiatric care to the poor and the imprisoned. It cost the state $76 million a year to treat prisoners in these hospitals. In the spring of 2013, former Governor Bobby Jindal began privatizing or closing nine of the 10 and that $76 million cost has since been cut by two-thirds, said Raman Singh, until recently the corrections department’s medical director.

Jindal declined interview requests. Timmy Teepell, chief of staff during much of the Republican’s first term, said the system was closed for good reason.

“It was outdated, underfunded, and produced the nation’s worst healthcare results,” Teepell said. “I am surprised it lasted as long as it did into the 21st Century.”

But the shutting of the hospitals left local governments struggling to provide medical care behind bars. Cat Roule, who spent 12 years as a nurse supervisor at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, told Reuters, “Once Earl K. Long shut down, everything got much worse. There were people piling up in the intake unit. It was just madness.”

Dennis Grimes, the current warden, acknowledged the jail can’t properly treat those in need in a facility where some 800-900 of 1,500 inmates are currently on mental health medication.

“The prison is equipped to deal with disciplinary behavior, not mental health patients. It doesn’t have the things that it really needs in order to function for those who have a mental health problem.”

Medical staff, he said, “burn out, they don’t know what to do, they need some relief – and there are no mental health hospitals out there.”

FIVE MEN IN CRISIS WHO DIED IN JAIL

On February 13, 2013, as operations at Earl K. Long wound down, David O’Quin, a 41-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, was picked up by police after his father reported he was off his medications and behaving erratically. He was booked into East Baton Rouge jail on charges of disturbing the peace. Per jail policy for the mentally ill, he was placed in isolation, where inmates have little access to visitors and spend 23½ hours a day, court records show.

When O’Quin disobeyed orders, guards strapped him to a chair by his ankles and wrists and left him caked in feces and urine, the family alleged in a lawsuit. A jail nurse noted he suffered “serious psychosis” and needed to see a doctor. He didn’t see one for six days, the family said. Guards found him nude in his cell, ignoring orders and spitting, and stormed the cell with shields and mace, records say.

A day later, the jail’s psychiatrist diagnosed him suffering from serious psychosis. O’Quin spent much of the next seven days restrained to a chair in isolation. He died in that chair February 26.

An autopsy found he had died from a pulmonary embolism from a blood clot that developed in his lower legs, likely due to the prolonged period of restraint, as well as from bacterial infection likely from contact between his open wounds and feces. O’Quin’s family has reached an undisclosed lawsuit settlement with the sheriff’s office.

After his death, the sheriff’s office reviewed policies and procedures, said Casey Hicks, a spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office. Among the changes: new guidelines for using the restraint chair. “It is still used when necessary, though it now requires approval directly from the Warden or designee,” she wrote.

Howell Andrews, a Senior Special Assistant to the Parish Attorney of East Baton Rouge, which was responsible for jail medical care at the time, pointed to a review panel’s findings: “The personnel of the Prison Medical Services acted within the standard of care within the regulations and restrictions in place in this environment.”

In July 2014, Antwoin Harden, 28, was picked up by police for trespassing on the grounds of the Drury Inn, telling officers he was homeless and would rather be in jail than on the streets. In jail, Harden refused to take his medication for bipolar disorder and sickle cell anemia, said his mother, Angelo Moses. He died that month from a blood clot in his lung, related to not taking his medications, she said.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, Andrews said he could not discuss Harden’s case. But he noted: “We are unable to forcibly medicate the individuals.”

Months later, on September 19, 2014, 72-year-old Paul Cleveland was arrested after verbally threatening a court clerk and booked into the jail. On his intake forms, the nurse noted he was bipolar and on antipsychotic medications, and suffered maladies including diabetes, heart pain and rheumatoid arthritis.

Once inside, Cleveland was unable to stand in the hours-long line for patient medications due to his arthritis. His doctor sent a note to the jail saying Cleveland needed a wheelchair, and his family brought one to the front gates. But jailers never let it inside, according to court filings in a family lawsuit against the city, jail and sheriff.

Cleveland filed eight emergency medical request forms, complaining of chest pain, trouble walking to get medication, and suicidal thoughts. When he felt the requests went unheeded, he filed three formal grievances.

Once, a doctor refused to see him because he was behaving belligerently, his medical records show. Other pleas were dismissed as the ranting of a madman. “Banging on window,” said a nurse, who assigned him to a lockdown cell “for his own safety.”

Cleveland’s prescribed daily medications included the antipsychotic Seroquel, Metformin for diabetes, and Cardura for blood pressure. When he was unable to rise and walk to receive them, a jail nurse told him to “stop playing and come get your medication,” a guard testified as part of the family’s ongoing lawsuit.

“Look, they killin’ me,” Cleveland told his family, in his last jailhouse call. “I can’t hardly stand no more.”

At 2:32 the morning of November 12, deputies found Cleveland naked on the floor of his cell, covered in feces. He said he was too weak to shower. A nurse told guards Cleveland was faking “because he wants to get back to the infirmary,” a guard testified in a deposition. Two hours later, at 4:05 a.m., he was found dead in his cell. An autopsy found extensive gastrointestinal bleeding likely caused by cardiovascular disease.

“If he had been transported to the emergency room and received a very simple blood transfusion, he would have survived,” said his lawyer, Amy Newsom.

Hicks said the sheriff’s office took “appropriate action” in dealing with each of Cleveland’s medical requests.

East Baton Rouge city attorneys dispute the family’s allegations, saying Cleveland was treated by medical personnel between 15-17 times during his 50-day stay. His wheelchair was denied because there was no necessary medical approval, said the city, which disputed allegations he was too weak to take his medication.

On May 25, 2015, Lamar Johnson, 27, was pulled over by police because the windows of his Honda Accord were illegally tinted. It was a minor infraction, but Johnson had an outstanding warrant in a neighboring parish, a four-year-old charge for passing a bad $900 check.

He was booked into East Baton Rouge. When guards refused his request for a blanket, he cursed them, according to deposition testimony by two inmates in the family’s lawsuit against the city, parish, warden, sheriff and others. The guards beat Johnson, handcuffed him and pepper-sprayed him, the inmates testified.

Johnson had never been previously diagnosed with a mental illness, his family said. But in jail, his mental health took a turn. Eyewitnesses described him pacing and paranoid, muttering, “I don’t want to live.” The guards moved him to the jail’s isolation wing. “The further back you go, the worse it is, with the smell and the noise,” another inmate testified.

At 10:22 a.m. on May 30, Johnson was found hanging from cell bars. He died days later.

When his father, Karl Franks, sought answers, he said Warden Grimes had little to say. “Well, Mr. Franks, it is what it is,” Franks recounted.

The sheriff disputes allegations in the family’s lawsuit, Hicks said, finding “no evidence” Johnson expressed suicidal thoughts or had been beaten by guards.

Prison Medical Services, the city-run entity responsible for jail health care, said it was “never notified of his presence prior to being called to respond to his suicide,” Andrews said. An inmate log form, he said, showed Johnson’s name had been struck through and marked as “released.”

‘A TICKING TIME BOMB’

Johnson’s death was the fourth involving a mentally disturbed inmate since the closure of East Baton Rouge’s charity hospital. Political pressure was mounting. In August, jail medical personnel testified before council members at a public hearing.

A jail nurse, Sharon Allen, told the council the jail was filling up with mentally ill inmates and described how a nurse had to leave early because an inmate foisted feces at her. “These are mentally unstable people and there’s not enough nurses,” she said.

“We do have a ticking time bomb,” said Dr. Rani Whitfield, a top medical official at the jail.

In response, the council hired Chicago-based consultants Health Management Associates to conduct a $95,000 study of the jail’s medical services.

Before the consulting firm could finish its study, the death toll rose. This time, it was 17-year-old Tyrin Colbert, arrested in November 2015 at his high school for an alleged sexual assault of two younger boys. The waifish teen – standing 5’11” and weighing 129 pounds – reported feeling suicidal soon after he was booked.

Placed in isolation, Colbert said he was hearing voices and told medical staff he needed help, court records show. Dr. Robert Blanche, a psychiatrist contracted to work part time at the jail, assessed Colbert through the bars of his cell. “He is not suicidal; not depressed; he was manipulating,” Blanche noted in the jail’s electronic record-keeping system. He ordered the suicide watch discontinued.

Blanche did not respond to requests for comment. He, Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux III and Warden Grimes are among defendants in the family’s lawsuit.

Four days later, another deputy said he found Colbert rocking back and forth and talking to a wall. Colbert said he had an imaginary friend named Jimmy. This time, Blanche concluded Colbert “may be psychotic (or he is malingering),” he wrote.

Hicks said Colbert requested to be taken off suicide watch. He returned to the general population and into a cell with another inmate, also 17, who choked him to death with a blanket on February 17, 2016. “Colbert did not report any threats or complaints concerning his cellmate,” said Hicks.

The private consulting firm’s findings, submitted to the Metro Council four months after this latest death, were damning.

Warden Dennis Grimes opens the doors to holding cells of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Baton Rouge, Louisiana March 5, 2018. Picture taken March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Warden Dennis Grimes opens the doors to holding cells of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Baton Rouge, Louisiana March 5, 2018. Picture taken March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

PRIVATE FOR-PROFIT PRISON CARE

The jail had just 36 percent of the physician staff hours found in comparable facilities. Jail staff failed to distribute prescribed medications nearly 20 percent of the time. A powerful anti-psychotic was being used widely to treat routine insomnia and keep inmates docile.

HMA concluded East Baton Rouge would need to double its $5 million annual budget to meet the minimal standard of inmate medical and psychiatric care.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, on January 1, 2017, the city hired CorrectHealth LLC, a private for-profit firm specializing in prison health care. The Atlanta-based firm promised to bring the jail’s medical care up to standard for $5.2 million a year, half of what the consultant cited.

CorrectHealth is among at least a dozen U.S. firms specializing in for-profit medical care behind bars. Today, it holds contracts to provide inmate healthcare at more than 40 facilities in the southeast, a spokesman said.

When it took over medical care in East Baton Rouge, Fano had been there two months.

Jonathan Fano, who committed suicide while in custody at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 15, 2018. Vanessa Fano/Handout via REUTERS

Jonathan Fano, who committed suicide while in custody at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 15, 2018. Vanessa Fano/Handout via REUTERS

His jail journey began as the Greyhound Bus idled at the Baton Rouge depot, amid a cross country journey from Miami to his California home. Sitting on the bus, he grew deeply paranoid.

“He said that all the people on the bus knew what he was thinking, that they were judging him, and that he felt sick,” recalled his mother. Fano, showing signs of schizophrenia, sometimes cleared his mind by walking the streets so long his bare feet blistered.

“‘Just focus your mind on coming home, don’t look at anyone, stay calm,’” Zavala told her son.

He fled the bus. Hours later, Baton Rouge police found him wandering the streets “naked and running around … hollering and cussing at imaginary people” and tearing down mailboxes, an arresting officer wrote.

Locked up, he begged for help. He filled out a medical request form November 25, 2016, complaining of anxiety and saying his antipsychotic meds weren’t working. “Feels as if the walls are closing in,” he wrote in December. Soon, a guard noted in all-caps that Fano “NEEDS TO SEE PSYCH.”

CorrectHealth took over New Year’s Day 2017. On January 11, an employee wrote Fano was “faking bad or exaggerating his condition.” Psychiatrist Blanche assessed Fano through the bars of his cell, concluding he “doubts serious mental illness, will begin tapering meds.” He ordered Fano’s anti-psychotic medicine reduced to 5mg and then discontinued after a week.

On February 2, Fano was found hanging from a torn mattress cover knotted to the bars of his cell. Under jail policy, the warden said, guards are supposed to check on inmates on suicide watch every 15 minutes and document what they see. But such checks didn’t come for Fano in the 11 hours before he hanged himself, video reviewed by Reuters shows. The reason: The warden said medical staff had months earlier taken Fano off suicide watch.

He died three days later. His mother now visits his grave every week.

John Ritter, a spokesman for CorrectHealth, said the company could not comment on pending litigation. He said company-run facilities “have been successfully audited against national correctional healthcare standards on numerous occasions.”

Warden Grimes defended the jail’s policy of placing inmates in isolation. But he said he had no easy answers to the jail’s challenges.

“The only way you’re going to stop someone from killing themselves is if there’s an officer there monitoring them 24/7,” the warden said. “And that’s just not possible.”

REFORM THAT LIVES AND DIES WITH POLITICS

As the deaths mounted, some city leaders began to feel pressure. O’Quin, whose last breaths came in a restraint chair, was from a prominent philanthropic Baton Rouge family. His father, Bill O’Quin, former president of a financial services publishing firm, mobilized business interests who joined the city’s first African-American mayor, Kip Holden, to push for a solution.

They drafted a plan to build a new mental health treatment center that would take in mentally ill people picked up by police. The center was modeled after one in Bexar County, Texas, where the sheriff said the facility saved the county $50 million over five years thanks in part to a sharp drop in incarceration rates of the mentally ill.

In Baton Rouge, winning approval for a tax to fund the center required support of the 12-member East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council. To muster support in the district, backers sought the endorsement of one of the parish’s most powerful forces: Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who runs the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. “If he didn’t support it, then our prospects were zero,” said William Daniel, former chief of staff to then-Mayor Holden.

Gautreaux is a tough-talking career lawman who had long pushed the city to bankroll a new jail. “The plan was, let’s give the sheriff a new jail, and we’ll get our mental health center,” said John Davies, CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, a philanthropic development fund that was among the driving forces for the mental health center.

Negotiations took place in Gautreaux’s office, adorned with taxidermied hunting trophies, animal skin rugs, and crossed rifles inmates had carved from wood, said those present.

The sheriff wanted the largest parish jail in Louisiana, a 3,500 bed facility, more than double the current size, attendees said. Mental health center supporters pushed back. Crime had been on the decline in Baton Rouge, they argued. Plus, the mental health center would divert many inmates from jail, citing the Texas example.

In Louisiana, sometimes dubbed the “world’s prison capital,” filling jailhouse beds means big money for sheriff’s offices. Any Louisiana sheriff with capacity to spare can house state prisoners and receive a fee of about $24 a day per inmate. Over 50 percent of Louisiana state prisoners are held in local jails, far more than in other states. Sheriffs boost their budgets by hiring out inmates as cafeteria workers at the statehouse, for instance.

“In Louisiana, anytime you want to pass a law moderating the drive to imprison people, you have this almost insurmountable opposition from the sheriffs,” said Jon Wool, with the Vera Institute for Justice, a nonprofit opposing mass incarceration.

Hicks said Gautreaux backed the mental health center from the start, and that the new jail size was determined by outside consultants. “The sheriff did not demand any particular size of the jail,” she said.

In the end, the package that went to the 12-member council for a vote in January 2015 included a 2,500-bed jail and package of new criminal justice facilities.

Advocates thought they had wrangled just enough support from the council’s tax-wary Republicans to endorse a $330 million bond measure. But at the last minute came defections from key Democrats. “This was just difficult to swallow with such a large prison component,” said council member Tara Wicker.

A mental health center was put again to a standalone citywide vote in 2016. It narrowly lost.

(Additional reporting by Ned Parker, Linda So and Grant Smith. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Storms unleash tornadoes in U.S. east, record snow in Midwest

Dark clouds hover above buildings amidst tornadoes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the U.S., April 10, 2018 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Emmet Finneran/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Deadly slow-moving storms generated record or near-record snowfall and low temperatures in the U.S. Midwest and tornadoes further east on Sunday, leaving airline travelers stranded and thousands without power.

In Michigan, where snowfall was expected to reach 18 inches in some areas, about 310,000 homes and businesses were without power because of an ice storm, most of them in the southeast of the state.

Large areas of Detroit were without power and customers were not expected to have it back on Sunday night, utility DTE Energy said. It was working to have 90 percent of outages restored by Tuesday, DTE spokeswoman Carly Getz said in a statement.

Cars are seen on a road during a tornado in Mountainburg, Arkansas, U.S., April 13, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. JOSHUA COLEMAN/via REUTERS

Cars are seen on a road during a tornado in Mountainburg, Arkansas, U.S., April 13, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. JOSHUA COLEMAN/via REUTERS

The weight of ice on power lines, coupled with high winds, caused more than 1,000 power lines to fall in Detroit and Wayne County, DTE said.

The worst of the snow was focused on the upper Great Lakes, with Green Bay, Wisconsin, seeing its second largest snowstorm ever after 23.2 inches fell as of Sunday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.

For the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, the April monthly record for snowfall of 21.8 inches (55 cm) was surpassed on Saturday, the National Weather Service said.

Two tornadoes tore up trees and ripped apart homes in Greensboro and Reidsville, North Carolina, killing a motorist who was hit by a tree, according to Greensboro’s city manager, local media reported.

The storms stretched from the Gulf Coast to the Midwest and were moving into the Northeast and New England.

Record low temperatures for the date were expected in Oklahoma City on Monday at 30 degrees F (-1 C), and in Kansas City, Missouri, at 25 F (-4 C), Hurley said.

On Friday, the weather system produced 17 reports of tornadoes in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas, with four people injured and 160 buildings damaged in a possible tornado in northwest Arkansas, local media reported.

The weather was blamed for two traffic deaths in western Nebraska and Wisconsin, according to National Public Radio.

The storms also killed a one-year-old girl when a tree fell on a recreational vehicle where she was sleeping, the sheriff’s office in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, said.

By Sunday night, 1,804 flights had been canceled into or out of U.S. airports, the website flightaware.com reported, including 148 flights in or out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Andrew Hay in Taos, N.M.; Editing by Adrian Croft and Peter Cooney)

Commuters in U.S. South face tough trek after deadly storm

Snow cover in the U.S. 1-18-18 - National Weather Service

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Commuters in the U.S. South faced frigid temperatures and dangerously slick roads on Thursday after a winter storm, responsible for at least eight deaths, thrashed the region with heavy snow and winds that snapped power lines.

Schools in New Orleans, Charlotte and Atlanta and across the region canceled classes on Thursday as winter weather advisories from the National Weather Service (NWS) remained in effect from eastern Texas to Florida and north into southeast Virginia.

“Motorists are urged to use extreme caution, or avoid travel if possible,” the NWS said in an advisory, warning that freezing temperatures would keep roads icy.

Wind chill advisories were in effect as temperatures will feel like they have fallen below zero Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) in parts of the Carolinas, Alabama and Virginia.

More than 14,000 households and businesses in North Carolina and Louisiana and in various parts of the South were without power early on Thursday, utility companies said online.

The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana declared states of emergency because of severe conditions that made traveling treacherous.

“We cannot stress it enough for everyone to stay off the roads unless you have no choice,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement, adding the storm had caused 1,600 traffic accidents.

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

The storm has caused at least eight deaths.

In Austin, Texas, a vehicle plunged more than 30 feet (9 meters) off a frozen overpass on Tuesday, killing a man in his 40s, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service said on its Twitter feed.

An 82-year-old woman who suffered from dementia was found dead on Wednesday behind her Houston-area home, likely due to exposure to cold, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said. Another woman died from cold exposure in Memphis, police said on Twitter.

In Georgia, two people were fatally struck by a car that slid on an ice patch near Macon, local media reports said.

A man was killed when he was knocked off an elevated portion of Interstate 10 in New Orleans and an 8-month-old baby died in a car crash in suburban New Orleans, local news reports said.

A woman died in West Virginia in a car crash, local reports said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Edmund Blair and Bernadette Baum)

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

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

By Gina Cherelus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two fatally shot at Louisiana’s Grambling State University

(Reuters) – Two men were shot and killed at Grambling State University in Louisiana, and police searched on Wednesday for the assailant who fled the scene, school and law enforcement officials said.

A student, Earl Andrews, 23, and Monquiarious Caldwell, 23, who was not enrolled at the university, were fatally shot during an altercation in a campus courtyard shortly after midnight Wednesday, the officials said.

The shooting came after an argument in a dormitory room, said Major Chad Alexander of the Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Department, the agency investigating the incident.

Grambling spokesman Will Sutton said in an email, “Our prayers go out to the victims and their families. Violence has no place on our campus.”

Classes were scheduled on Wednesday, Sutton said.

“It is homecoming week, a normally joyful time,” he said. “We would never have anticipated anything like this. It’s such senseless violence.”

Both of the shooting victims were from Farmerville, Louisiana, Sutton said.

Grambling State University is a historically black college attended by about 4,800 students in Grambling in northern Louisiana.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Applause, laughter as wounded lawmaker Scalise returns to Congress

U.S. Rep Steve Scalise (R-LA) is applauded as he arrives in the House chamber after returning to Congress for the first time since being shot and seriously wounded in June. U.S. House TV/Handout via Reuters

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Members of the U.S. House of Representatives put bitter party divisions aside for a long standing ovation on Thursday as Representative Steve Scalise returned for the first time since he was shot and wounded in June.

Leaning on a cane but walking on his own, Scalise, 51, entered a packed House chamber to applause and loud cheers from his fellow members of Congress.

“You have no idea how great this feels to be back here at work in the people’s House,” said Scalise, the No. 3 Republican in the chamber, standing at a desk in the Republican section after he was greeted with hugs and high-fives from members of his own party and Democrats.

He thanked the Capitol police officers he credited with saving his life, world leaders who had contacted him and members of his medical team, who were sitting in the crowded visitors gallery overlooking the House floor.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s voice cracked as he introduced Scalise. “The chair wishes to mark the return of our dear friend and colleague from Louisiana, Mr. Steve Scalise,” Ryan said. “Our prayers have been answered.”

Scalise gave an emotional speech, interrupted by frequent applause, thanking his family and referring to innate optimism he partly attributed to being from Louisiana, referring to the attitude of “joie de vivre” (joy of life) in a state with a heavy French influence.

“When I come back into this chamber today, just seeing the faces of all of you, it just means more than you can imagine,” Scalise said.

Scalise was among Republican lawmakers attacked June 14 in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, by a gunman who opened fire on them while they were practicing for a charity baseball game against Democrats.

He underwent repeated surgeries before being released from the hospital in late July.

Scalise was shot in the hip by a gunman who had a history of posting angry messages against Republican President Donald Trump.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Trump, siding with Democrats, agrees to three-month debt-limit rise: lawmakers

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L), U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (2nd R), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R) and other congressional leaders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, siding with Democrats over his fellow Republicans, agreed on Wednesday that Congress should pass an extension of the U.S. debt limit until Dec. 15, a government funding bill covering the same period and disaster aid for Hurricane Harvey victims, Democratic leaders said.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer and top House of Representatives Democrat Nancy Pelosi made the announcement after a meeting with Trump at the White House, along with the Republican leaders of Congress.

“Both sides have every intention of avoiding default in December and look forward to working together on the many issues before us,” Schumer and Pelosi said in a statement.

A source briefed on the meeting with Trump said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and all Republicans at the White House meeting argued for a debt limit increase for a longer period. But by the end of the meeting, Trump sided with Democrats who wanted a three-month increase.

The U.S. dollar got a boost on news of agreement on the debt ceiling, which caps how much money the U.S. government can borrow. Many conservatives in Congress are loath to raise it without spending cuts.

The Treasury Department has said the ceiling must be raised in the next few weeks. If not, the government would be unable to borrow more money or pay its bills, including its debt payments. That could hurt the United States’ credit rating, cause financial turmoil, harm the U.S. economy and possibly trigger a recession.

Trump is heading into the toughest legislative stretch of his presidency, with lawmakers facing several pressing legislative priorities.

Those include Harvey disaster relief, raising the debt ceiling by early October to prevent an unprecedented default on U.S. government debt, and passing legislation for federal spending in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 to avoid a government shutdown.

“We have many, many things that are on the plate,” Trump told reporters at the beginning of a White House meeting with the congressional leaders.

“Hopefully we can solve them in a rational way. And maybe we won’t be able to. We’ll probably know pretty much at the end of this meeting or the meetings that we’ll be having over a short period of time,” Trump added.

Trump on Tuesday also gave a Congress six months to pass legislation to decide the fate of the 800,000 so-called Dreamers after rescinding a five-year-old program that had protected them from deportation.

Earlier, House Speaker Paul Ryan said any legislation to address the Dreamers would also need to address border security, a position sure to antagonize Democrats. Ryan also said any immigration legislation the House would consider would have to have the support of Trump.

Schumer urged Republicans to put forward legislation protecting the Dreamers without other issues attached.

The House on Wednesday approved roughly $8 billion in initial emergency aid for relief and rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey, which tore into Texas on Aug. 25. The measure, which provides $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million for the Small Business Administration, will now go to the Senate and, barring unexpected setbacks, could be on Trump’s desk to sign by the end of the week.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Amanda Becker, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, James Oliphant and David Morgan; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Subdued by Harvey, Congress reconvenes facing fiscal tests

The U.S. Capitol building is seen at sunset in Washington, U.S. May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Zach Gibson

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, but could bring some fiscal order to Washington where Republicans and Democrats will need to put political differences aside in order to approve spending to repair the damage from flooding in and around Houston.

Lawmakers returning to Washington after a month-long break are expected to swiftly agree to an initial request for nearly $8 billion in disaster aid, with the House of Representatives considering assistance on Wednesday.

More requests will follow from the Trump administration, with the fractious Republicans who control the House and the Senate determined to look capable of governing in a crisis.

Some estimates say Harvey could cost U.S. taxpayers almost as much as the total federal aid outlay of more than $110 billion for 2005’s record-setting Hurricane Katrina.

That sobering cost and the urgent needs of Harvey’s victims have helped to calm a fiscal storm that had threatened to engulf Congress and President Donald Trump ahead of Oct. 1. The rancor revolves around the deadline for lawmakers to approve a temporary spending measure to keep the government from shutting down, as well as the need to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

“There’s reason to hope that in the wake of the tragedy in Texas … there will be a renewed sense of community and common purpose that can help get things done,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who once worked as spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner.

Before Harvey, Trump had threatened to veto such spending and trigger a shutdown if Congress refused to fund his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. He has dropped his threat, the Washington Post reported on Friday, making a shutdown less likely.

As of the Labor Day holiday weekend, approval by Congress was widely anticipated in late September of a stopgap bill, or continuing resolution, to continue current spending levels for two to three more months.

The need to help Hurricane Harvey victims “creates another reason as to why you’d want to keep the government open,” Republican Senator Roy Blunt said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

FRESH START WITH TRUMP

With much of Washington distracted by tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program, Congress must also raise the federal debt ceiling by the end of September or early October to stave off an unprecedented U.S. government debt default, which would shake global markets.

The debt ceiling caps how much money the U.S. government can borrow, and some conservatives are loath to raise it without spending reforms. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday said Congress should act quickly to increase the debt limit, otherwise relief funding for hurricane-ravaged areas of Texas might be delayed.

“Without raising the debt limit, I am not comfortable that we will get money to Texas this month to rebuild,” Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday.

Blunt, a junior member of Senate Republican leadership, said it was possible lawmakers could tie legislation raising the debt ceiling to measures providing financial aid for recovery from Harvey. “That’s one way to do it,” he said on Meet the Press.

The head of the Republican Study Committee, the largest group of House conservatives, said on Monday that Congress was obligated to help those hurt by Harvey.

But Representative Mark Walker also warned that “legislative games” like attaching Harvey aid to a debt ceiling hike could jeopardize consensus. “The debt ceiling should be paired with significant fiscal and structural reforms,” he said in a statement.

Senior Republicans were warning Trump not to anger Democrats by carrying through with his threat to curtail the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for immigrant children, which Democrats widely support. Democratic votes will likely be needed to both raise the debt ceiling and prevent a shutdown.

Trump might have listened to them. Sources said on Sunday that he has decided to scrap the program that shields the young immigrants from deportation, but he will give Congress six months to craft a bill to replace it.

With his tendency to send conflicting policy signals and attack fellow Republicans, Trump may present the biggest uncertainty as Congress gets back to work.

The four top Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House are set to hold a rare bipartisan meeting with Trump on Wednesday to chart a path forward for the multiple fiscal issues.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who will attend the meetings, spent much of August feuding with Trump, who attacked the Kentuckian repeatedly on Twitter.

One Republican strategist said the Senate leader would not dwell on those tensions. “Basically every Republican senator is looking to put whatever nonsense happened on Twitter in August in the rear view mirror and focus on all the important work that needs to get done in September,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for McConnell.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan and Chris Sanders; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Mary Milliken)

Trump to visit victims of unprecedented floods in Texas and Louisiana

Trump to visit victims of unprecedented floods in Texas and Louisiana

By Emily Flitter and Daniel Trotta

HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.s. President Donald Trump travels to Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana on Saturday to meet victims of catastrophic storm Harvey, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history that is presenting a test of his administration.

While Trump visits, attention will also be focused on Minute Maid Park, where baseball’s Houston Astros play their first home games since Harvey devastated the fourth-most populous U.S. city. The Saturday doubleheader with the New York Mets is expected to be wrought with emotion and punctuated with moments to honor the dozens who died as a result of Harvey.

The storm, one of the costliest to hit the United States, has displaced more than 1 million people, with 50 feared dead from flooding that paralyzed Houston, swelled river levels to record highs and knocked out the drinking water supply in Beaumont, Texas, a city of 120,000 people.

Hurricane Harvey came ashore last Friday as the strongest storm to hit Texas in more than 50 years. Much of the damage took place in the Houston metropolitan area, which has an economy about the same size as Argentina’s.

For graphic on hurricane costs, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2vGkbHS

For graphic on storms in the North Atlantic, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2gcckz5

Seventy percent of Harris County, which encompasses Houston, at one point was covered with 18 inches (45 cm) or more of water, county officials said.

Trump first visited the Gulf region on Tuesday, but stayed clear of the disaster zone, saying he did not want to hamper rescue efforts. Instead, he met with state and local leaders, and first responders.

He was criticized, however, for not meeting with victims of the worst storm to hit Texas in 50 years, and for largely focusing on the logistics of the government response rather than the suffering of residents.

The White House said Trump will first travel to Houston to meet with flood survivors and volunteers who assisted in relief efforts and then move on to Lake Charles, another area hammered by the storm.

The Trump administration in a letter to Congress asked for a $7.85 billion appropriation for response and initial recovery efforts. White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert has said aid funding requests would come in stages as more became known about the impact of the storm.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said that his state may need more than $125 billion.

The storm, which lingered around the Gulf of Mexico Coast for days, dumped record amounts of rain and left devastation across more than 300 miles (480 km) of the state’s coast.

As water receded, many returned to survey the damage and left hundreds of thousands wondering how they can recover.

In Orange, Texas, about 125 miles (200 kms) east of Houston, Sam Dougharty, 36, returned on Friday where waist-high water remained in his backyard and barn.

His family’s house smelled like raw sewage and was still flooded to the ankles. A calf and a heifer from their herd of 15 were dead. The chickens were sagging on the top two roosts of their coop.

“We never had water here. This is family land. My aunt’s owned it for 40 years and never had water here,” he said.

Members of Army National Guard conduct high water rescue operations in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S. in this August 31, 2017 handout photo. Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shelley/Air National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

Members of Army National Guard conduct high water rescue operations in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S. in this August 31, 2017 handout photo. Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shelley/Air National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

FROM THE SHELTER TO THE STADIUM

Harvey came on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,800 around New Orleans. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration was roundly criticized for its botched early response to the storm.

Some of the tens of thousands of people forced into shelters by Harvey will attend the Astros game where Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner will throw out the first pitch and a moment of silence in planned for those who perished.

Sports have helped other cities rebound from catastrophe, such as when the New York Mets played the first baseball game in their damaged city 10 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or when the New Orleans Saints returned to the Superdome in 2006 for football a year after Hurricane Katrina.

In the Harris County area of Clear Creek, the nearly 50 inches (127 cm) of rain that fell there equated to a once in a 40,000 year event, Jeff Lindner, meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, said.

Some 440,000 Texans have already applied for federal financial disaster assistance, and some $79 million has been approved so far, Abbott said.

The storm shut about a fourth of U.S. refinery capacity, much of which is clustered along the Gulf Coast, and caused gasoline prices to spike to a two-year high ahead of the long Labor Day holiday weekend.

The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline has risen more than 17.5 cents since the storm struck, hitting $2.59 as of Saturday morning, motorists group AAA said.

Meanwhile a new storm, Irma, had strengthened on Friday into a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. It remained hundreds of miles from land but was forecast to possibly hit Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti by the middle of next week.

(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis, Ernest Scheyder, Ruthy Munoz, Peter Henderson and Andy Sullivan in Houston, Steve Holland in Washington, Julia Simon in New York, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

Texas crews search for survivors in wake of Harvey’s floods

A Marine Corp vehicle patrols a flooded street as a result of Tropical Storm Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas, U.S., August 31, 2017.

By Emily Flitter and Andy Sullivan

PORT ARTHUR, Texas/HOUSTON (Reuters) – A week after Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Texas, rescuers kept up a marathon search for survivors on Friday as large pockets of land remained under water after one of the costliest natural disasters to hit the United States.

The storm has displaced more than 1 million people with 44 feared dead from flooding that paralyzed Houston, swelled river levels to record highs and knocked out the drinking water supply in Beaumont, Texas, a city of about 120,000 people.

Chemicals maker Arkema SA and public health officials warned of the risk of more explosions and fires at a plant owned by the company. On Thursday blasts rocked the facility, about 25 miles east of Houston and zoned off inside a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) exclusion zone, after it was engulfed by floodwater.

With the presence of water-borne contaminants a growing concern, the National Weather Service issued flood watches from Arkansas into Ohio on Friday as the remnants of the storm made their way through the U.S. heartland.

The Neches River, which flows into Beaumont and nearby Port Arthur, was forecast for a record crest from Friday well above flood levels. The flooding and loss of drinking water forced the evacuation of a hospital on Thursday.

Two of the last people remaining in their flooded home near the river, Kent Kirk, 58, and Hersey Kirk, 59, were pulled to safety late Thursday.

“They were the last holdouts, the last house,” said Dennis Landy, a neighbor who had spent the day in his airboat ferrying people from a small, remote group of houses near Rose City, Texas, close to the Neches’ banks, to safety.

It took an hour of coaxing by a rescuer but Hersey Kirk finally let herself be carried from her wheelchair to the airboat and then to a Utah Air National Guard helicopter.

“I’m losing everything again,” she said. “We got flooded in Ike, in Rita. My husband just got a new car – well it was new to him anyway. It’s sitting in 5 feet of water.”

Harvey roared ashore late last Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in half a century. It dumped unprecedented quantities of rain and left devastation across more than 300 miles (482 km) in the southeast corner of the state.

 

COST OF UP TO $75 BILLION

Moody’s Analytics estimated the economic cost from Harvey for southeastern Texas at $51 billion to $75 billion, ranking it among the costliest storms in U.S. history. Much of the damage has been to Houston, the U.S. energy hub.

At least 44 people were dead or feared dead in six counties including and around Houston, officials said. Another 19 remained missing.

Some 779,000 Texans have been told to leave their homes and another 980,000 fled voluntarily amid dangers of new flooding from swollen rivers and reservoirs, according to federal estimates.

Tens of thousands crowded in evacuation centers across the region.

Evacuees affected by Tropical Storm Harvey take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, Texas, U.S.  August 31, 2017

Evacuees affected by Tropical Storm Harvey take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A new hurricane, Irma, had strengthened into a Category 3 storm, the midpoint of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, on Friday. It remained hundreds of miles from land but was forecast to possibly hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and neighboring Haiti by the middle of next week.

Seventy percent of Harris County, which encompasses Houston and has a population of about 4.6 million people, was covered with 18 inches (45 cm) or more of water, county officials said.

As signs of normal life returned to Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, there were concerns about health risks from bacteria and pollutants in floodwater.

The Houston Astros baseball team, forced to play away from the city due to the floods, will return and play at its home field on Saturday. It has invited shelter residents to attend its double header against the New York Mets, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on his Twitter feed.

Flooding has shut some of the nation’s largest oil refineries and hit U.S. energy infrastructure, which is centered along the Gulf Coast. It has sent gasoline prices climbing and disrupted global fuel supplies. [O/R]

The national average for a regular gallon of gasoline rose to $2.519 as of Friday morning, the highest since August 2015, up 17 cents since before the storm hit, according to motorists advocacy group AAA.

The storm knocked out about a quarter of U.S. oil refining capacity and the signs of restarts were tentative.

In major Texas cities including Dallas, there were long lines at gas stations, prompting state regulators to tell people they were sparking a panic and saying there were ample fuel supplies.

Power outages had decreased from peaks of over 300,000 to about 160,000 homes and business in Texas and Louisiana as of Friday morning, data from utilities showed.

 

(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis, Marianna Parraga, Ernest Scheyder, Ruthy Munoz, Peter Henderson and Andy Sullivan in Houston, David Gaffen in New York, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)