Second wave of twisters in U.S. South turns deadly as storm pushes east

4-19-2019 Twitter photograph of Macron, MS twitter - Bryce Jones

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A second wave of tornadoes and thunderstorms to hit the U.S. South and Midwest this week turned deadly on Thursday with three people reported killed, as the storms pushed eastward on Friday, officials and media accounts said.

One person was killed after a tree fell on his vehicle in Neshoba County, Mississippi, Thursday afternoon, the local paper, the Neshoba Democrat, reported.

A second death was reported in St. Clair County, Mississippi, after a tree fell on a home, late Thursday, according to AccuWeather.

A third death was reported late Thursday in the Wattsville community, north of Pell City, Alabama, the National Weather Service (NWS) reported, after a tree fell on a home.

The deaths come in the wake of at least five people, including three children, who were killed last weekend in a storm system that drove more than three dozen tornadoes across the U.S. South.

Communities in central Texas and western Louisiana, already hit by flash floods and twisters in the first round last weekend, were hit once more by high winds, twisters, egg-sized hail and intense rain Thursday and Friday, according to AccuWeather and the NWS.

In the latest storm system, multiple possible tornadoes hit southwest and central Mississippi Thursday night and early Friday, the NWS said, but the damage will have to be surveyed before confirmation of twisters.

“We’re still under some severe storm warnings, tornado watches and flood warnings into this morning and the afternoon across a broad swipe of the U.S.,” said NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec early Friday.

“The severe thunderstorms will impact the deep South and southeastern U.S., through Georgia and the Florida panhandle, before it heads up the Atlantic Coast,” he said.

Flash flooding could remain a threat in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts on Saturday, the weather service said.

The storm system will lose much of its punch late in the weekend, but the East Coast should expect a soggy Easter, Oravec said.

Power outages were reported early Friday in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, affecting a total of about 91,800 homes and businesses, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.Us.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Mark Potter)

Deadly storms leave thousands without power in eastern U.S

A view of clouds, part of a weather system seen from near Franklin, Texas, U.S., in this still image from social media video dated April 13, 2019. TWITTER @DOC_SANGER/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Tornadoes, wind gusts of up to 70 mph and pounding hail remained threats early on Monday from eastern New York and into New England, as the remnants of a deadly storm push out to sea, the National Weather Service said.

More than 79,000 homes and businesses were without power in Virginia, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.US, with 89,000 more outages reported across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland and New York.

The affected areas will get heavy rains, winds with gusts of up to 70 mph (110 kph) and the possibility of hail, NWS Weather Prediction Center in Maryland said.

“This is an ongoing threat,” said Brian Hurley, from the center.

“There are short spin-ups, pockets of heavy rain and damaging winds that can still hit before this pushes off shore.”

The weekend’s storm brought tornadoes that killed at least five people, including three children, in the U.S. South, officials said.

The massive storm system sped from Texas eastward with dozens of twisters reported as touching down across the South from Texas through Georgia into Pennsylvania.

Nearly 2,300 U.S. flights were canceled by Sunday evening, more then 90 percent of them at airports in Chicago; Houston, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio and a dozen major airports on the Eastern Seaboard, according to FlightAware.com.

But no major flight delays were reported on the east coast before 6 a.m. Monday.

The storm’s cold front brought snow to Chicago on Sunday, with 1 to 3 inches (2.5-7.6 cm) reported in central Illinois.

Two children, siblings aged three and eight, were killed on Saturday when a tree fell on the car in which they were sitting in Pollok, Texas, said a spokeswoman for the Angelina County Sheriff’s Department.

A third child, Sebastian Omar Martinez, 13, drowned late on Saturday when he fell into a drainage ditch filled with flash floodwaters near Monroe, Louisiana, said Deputy Glenn Springfield of the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office.

In another storm death nearby, an unidentified victim’s body was trapped in a vehicle submerged in floodwaters in Calhoun, Louisiana, Springfield said.

In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant said one person was killed and 11 injured over the weekend as tornadoes ripped through 17 counties and left 26,000 homes and businesses without electricity.

In addition, three people were killed when a private jet crashed in Mississippi on Saturday, although Bryant said it was unclear whether it was caused by the weather.

Soaking rains could snarl the Monday morning commute on the East Coast before the storm moves off to sea.

“The biggest impact rush hour-wise probably will be Boston, around 7 to 8 o’clock in the morning, and around New York City around 5 or 6 o’clock, before sunrise,” NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, and Barbara Goldberg and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)

Son of sheriff’s deputy charged with burning three Louisiana black churches

By Peter Szekely

(Reuters) – The son of a sheriff’s deputy was charged with burning down three predominately black churches in southern Louisiana over the past two weeks, officials said on Thursday, saying they acted quickly out of concern he would strike again.

Holden Matthews, 21, a white resident of St. Landry Parish, the county where the fires occurred, was charged with three counts of simple arson on religious buildings, each count of which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years, Louisiana Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said.

“We are extremely, unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes on these three churches,” Browning told a news briefing in Opelousas, Louisiana, about 60 miles (97 km) west of Baton Rouge.

Matthews, the son of Deputy Roy Matthews of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, was taken into custody late Wednesday, about 12 hours after he was identified as a suspect, Browning said.

“We felt that other crimes were imminent,” he said. “In an abundance of public safety, we quickly secured warrants and took him into custody.”

The three churches destroyed by the fires have mostly black congregations, raising authorities’ suspicion that the fires may be racially motivated hate crimes. No federal hate crime charges have been filed against Matthews so far.

Noting the history of black church burnings in the South, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the current episode was “especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear.”

Edwards said the crimes appeared to be unrelated to the March 31 burning of a predominantly white church in another parish.

While investigators were still exploring motives, Browning said that Matthews had “a relationship with a type of music called black metal,” an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. Black metal has an association with church burnings in other parts of the world, he said.

Officials, including those from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the investigation was ongoing.

The fires set between March 26 and April 4 destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas.

St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said he believed his deputy was unaware of Holden Matthews’ involvement in the fires.

“Roy Matthews is one of my best friends, a great deputy,” Guidroz said.

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

More U.S. states push ahead with near-bans on abortion for Supreme Court challenge

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation on Wednesday making it a crime for doctors to perform a second-trimester abortion using instruments like forceps and clamps to remove the fetus from the womb.

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

The move came the same day that Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans – outlawing the procedure if a doctor can detect a heartbeat. The bill now goes to Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who is expected to sign it.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature in March also passed a ban on abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Activists on both sides of the issue say such laws, which are commonly blocked by court injunctions, are aimed at getting a case sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 5-4 majority, to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The North Dakota bill, which Burgum’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, confirmed in an email that the governor signed, followed similar laws in Mississippi and West Virginia.

Known as HB 1546, it outlaws the second-trimester abortion practice known in medical terms as dilation and evacuation, but which the legislation refers to as “human dismemberment.”

Under the North Dakota legislation, doctors performing the procedure would be charged with a felony but the woman having the abortion would not face charges.

Similar legislation exists in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, but is on hold because of litigation, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

Abortion-rights groups challenging such bans argue they are unconstitutional as they obstruct private medical rights.

North Dakota has one abortion provider, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo. Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She previously said her clinic would wait for a decision in a case involving similar legislation in Arkansas before deciding on a possible legal challenge to HB 1546.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Suspicious blazes destroy three predominantly black Louisiana churches

The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, U.S. April 4, 2019 is pictured after a fire in this picture obtained from social media. Courtesy Louisiana Office Of State Fire Marshal/Handout via REUTERS

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – Federal and state officials in Louisiana are investigating suspicious fires that destroyed three predominantly black churches in 10 days in one mostly rural parish, authorities said on Saturday.

Investigators have not concluded whether the three fires at Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish, about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of New Orleans, were connected, said Ashley Rodrigue, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Fire Marshall’s Office.

They also have not determined whether the blazes, which occurred between March 26 and Thursday, were intentionally set, she said in an email. At a news conference on Thursday, State Fire Marshall Butch Browning was asked if investigators were treating the fires as potential hate crimes.

“If the hate crime definition was violated, we will certainly vet those things out,” Browning said.

The number of hate crimes in the United States increased 17 percent in 2017, the third consecutive year such attacks rose, according to FBI data released last fall.

Investigators probing the St. Landry Parish fires were awaiting lab results but view the three blazes as “suspicious,” Browning said at the news conference.

Without giving details, he said certain “patterns” had been discovered, but that it was too early to say whether a single individual had started the fires.

“There certainly is a commonality and whether that leads to a person or persons or groups, we don’t know,” Browning said.

The fires destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in the community of Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, the parish seat.

The FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined in the investigation, Browning said.

Investigators have concluded that a fourth fire last Sunday, more than 200 miles outside St. Landry Parish at a predominantly white church in Vivian in northwest Louisiana, was intentionally set, state fire officials said in a statement.

That fire, inside the sanctuary at Vivian United Pentecostal Church, was relatively small and burned itself out.

No one has been arrested in connection with any of the church fires, which have not resulted in any injuries, officials said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Tom Brown)

Supreme Court blocks restrictive Louisiana abortion law

FILE PHOTO - An abortion rights activist holds up a sign as marchers take part in the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday stopped a Louisiana law imposing strict regulations on abortion clinics from going into effect in its first major test on abortion since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy last summer.

The court on a 5-4 vote granted an emergency application by Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women to block the Republican-backed law from going into effect while litigation continues.

The four liberal justices were joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority, suggesting that Roberts, as Kennedy used to be, is now the key vote on the issue.

Kennedy backed abortion rights in two key cases. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who President Donald Trump appointed to replace Kennedy, joined the court’s four other conservatives in dissent.

Hope Medical Group challenged the law’s requirement that doctors who perform abortions must have an arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.

Kavanaugh, writing for himself, said it was not clear whether doctors would be unable to obtain the admitting privileges were the law to go into effect. He said that he would have favored allowing them to bring a later legal challenge if their efforts were unsuccessful.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion-rights group that represents the challengers, said the law could lead to the closure of two of the three abortion clinics operating in Louisiana, a state of more than 4.6 million people.

The law was passed in 2014 but courts had prevented it from going into effect. The Supreme Court itself blocked the law in 2016, two days after hearing another major case involving a similar Texas law that the justices struck down months later.

Kennedy, a conservative who retired in July 2018, had voted to preserve abortion rights in 1992 and again in the 2016 Texas case.

Roberts was a dissenter in the 2016 case, but his vote on Thursday, for now, suggests the court is not retreating from that precedent.

Kavanaugh is one of two Trump appointees who are part of the court’s 5-4 conservative majority, along with Neil Gorsuch.

The Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalized the procedure nationwide in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The court on Feb. 1 temporarily blocked the Lousiana law, which was due to go into effect on Feb. 4, while the justices decided how to proceed.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Louisiana man suspected of killing spree is arrested in Virginia

(Reuters) – Sheriff’s deputies in Virginia on Sunday arrested a 21-year-old man wanted on suspicion of shooting five people to death in Louisiana including his parents, his girlfriend and members of her family.

Following a multistate manhunt, Dakota Theriot was arrested in Richmond County, Virginia, after pointing a firearm out the window of a home, officials said.

“Deputies challenged him and he surrendered without incident and is at NNRJ (Northern Neck Regional Jail) without bond,” the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.

Theriot will be taken back to Louisiana to face charges including first-degree homicide, home invasion and illegal use of weapons, the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana said.

The Livingston Parish Sheriff’s office in Louisiana said he was wanted on two counts of first-degree homicide.

Both counties are in the Baton Rouge area and about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from where he was arrested a day after the killings.

Theriot was identified as the suspect in the Saturday morning slayings of Billy Ernest, 43, Tanner Ernest, 17, and Summer Ernest, 20, Livingston Parish officials said.

Investigators believed Summer Ernest was Theriot’s girlfriend, NBC News reported, citing authorities. Tanner was her brother and Billy their father.

Theriot is believed to have stolen their vehicle and driven to nearby Ascension Parish, to the home of his parents where he lived until recently when he was asked to leave, officials said.

“This is probably … one of the worst domestic violence incidents I have seen in quite a while, for a young man to walk into a bedroom and kill his mother and father, and then to kill the family in Livingston he had a connection with,” Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre told a news conference.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. top court rebuffs state bids to cut Planned Parenthood funds

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare activists with Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress pass by the Supreme Court as they protest in opposition to the Senate Republican healthcare bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals by Louisiana and Kansas seeking to end public funding by those states to Planned Parenthood, a national women’s healthcare, and abortion provider, through the Medicaid program.

The justices left intact lower court rulings that prevented the two states from stripping government healthcare funding from local Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Three conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the decision by the nine-member court, saying it should have heard the appeals by the states.

The case is one of a number of disputes working their way up to the Supreme Court over state-imposed restrictions on abortion. The two states did not challenge the constitutionality of abortion itself.

Planned Parenthood’s affiliates in Louisiana do not perform abortions, but some in Kansas do. Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income Americans, pays for abortions only in limited circumstances, such as when a woman’s life is in danger.

Louisiana and Kansas announced plans to terminate funding for Planned Parenthood through Medicaid after an anti-abortion group released videos in 2015 purporting to show Planned Parenthood executives negotiating the for-profit sale of fetal tissue and body parts. Planned Parenthood denied the allegations and said the videos were heavily edited and misleading.

The organization’s affiliates in each state, as well as several patients, sued in federal court to maintain the funding.

Legal battles over other laws from Republican-led states could reach the court in the next year or two. Some seek to ban abortions in early pregnancy, including Iowa’s prohibition after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Others impose difficult-to-meet regulations on abortion providers such as having formal ties, called admitting privileges, at a local hospital.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Storm Gordon starts kicking up waves on U.S. Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Gordon is pictured nearing Florida, U.S. in this September 2, 2018 NASA satellite handout photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Waves began to batter parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday as the region felt the first hit of Tropical Storm Gordon, which is expected to become a hurricane before it comes ashore with high winds and heavy rain, forecasters said.

The storm also caused a jump in global oil prices after the evacuation of two oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gordon was due to come ashore late on Tuesday near the border between Louisiana and Mississippi, and drop as much as 12 inches (30 cm) of rain in areas still recovering from last year’s hurricanes, the National Hurricane Center said.

Currently carrying winds of around 65 miles per hour (105 km per hour), the storm was expected to pack hurricane-force winds – of at least 74 mph (119 kph) – when it reached the north-central Gulf Coast, the center said.

High surf was already hitting Alabama’s Dauphin Island early Tuesday, the National Weather Service office in Mobile said on Twitter.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency and said 200 Louisiana National Guardsmen were being deployed, along with 63 high-water trucks, 39 boats, and four helicopters.

Trees sway as Storm Gordon descends on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @Saralina77/via REUTERS

Trees sway as Storm Gordon descends on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @Saralina77/via REUTERS

New Orleans’ mayor, LaToya Cantrell, declared her own state of emergency and closed all non-essential government offices.

Storm surge of as much as 5 feet (1.5 m) could hit a stretch of coast from Shell Beach, Louisiana, to Dauphin Island, Alabama, forecasters said. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency told South Mississippi residents to be prepared to evacuate.

As of Tuesday morning, Gordon was located about 190 miles (305 km) east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and was heading west-northwest, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

U.S. oil producer Anadarko Petroleum Corp evacuated workers and shut production at two offshore oil platforms on Monday, and other companies with production and refining operations along the Gulf Coast said they were securing facilities.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 17 percent of U.S. crude oil and 5 percent of natural gas output daily, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More than 45 percent of the nation’s refining capacity is located along the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the ports of New Orleans as well as Gulfport and Pascagoula, Mississippi, may have to close within 48 hours.

Maintenance crew work near power lines during an outage after Storm Gordon descended on Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @ZwebackHD/via REUTERS

Maintenance crew work near power lines during an outage after Storm Gordon descended on Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @ZwebackHD/via REUTERS

Last year, powerful hurricanes hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths, hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage and massive power outages.

Gordon passed over Florida’s southern tip on Monday afternoon. There were no reports of any injuries or deaths or any damage to buildings, said Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

(Reporting Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Louise Heavens, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry)

Tropical Storm Gordon hits southern Florida, spins toward U.S. Gulf Coast

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in the Myrtle Grove Estates development in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, U.S. October 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jessica Resnick-Ault/File Photo

By Jon Herskovitz and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A tropical storm whipped the southern tip of Florida with high winds and rain on Monday morning and was forecast to gain strength as it passed over the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana, officials said.

Tropical Storm Gordon was forecast to drop as much as 8 inches (20 cm) of rain in some areas of the U.S. South still reeling from hurricanes a year ago.

The storm was generating winds of 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) on Monday as it steamed west-northwest at 17 miles an hour (27 km/h), National Hurricane Center Director Kenneth Graham said in a video briefing on Facebook.

“It looks like for the next three or four days we’re going to be having to really watch close,” Graham said, “and remember if you’re even inland you can get some of these heavy rainfall totals so now is the time to be prepared.”

Last year, hurricanes walloped Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths, hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, massive power outages and devastation to hundreds of thousands of structures.

The National Hurricane Center warned of high winds around parts of Florida as the storm passed over the southern tip of the state on Monday morning.

The storm was expected to strengthen over the Gulf of Mexico, and reach the central Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana late on Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

At the mouth of the Mississippi River, around the area of New Orleans, the storm could generate a surge of up to 4 feet (1 meter) and smaller surges could hit coastland along other parts of the Gulf Coast, Graham said.

“The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the National Hurricane Center said in a statement.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said on Sunday he had activated the state’s Crisis Action Team as a precaution.

There were no immediate indications that the storm had affected energy operations in the Gulf of Mexico area.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Andrea Ricci)